CHESTER, Pa. -- Even as the wire-to-wire No. 1 team nationally and prohibitive favorite to repeat as NCAA Division I women’s lacrosse national champion, Maryland endures the rare sluggish stretch that makes a program like Syracuse believe they can defy the odds, the skeptics, and its unfortunate history against its perennial national nemesis.A few weeks after a most improbable loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten tournament semifinals, Maryland found itself trailing 5-4 just five minutes before halftime after having six prime scoring opportunities clang off the post.
If ever there was a time for the fourth-seeded Orange to reverse being on the wrong side of their against the Terrapins, against whom they were previously 1-17 all-time, it appeared to be in Friday night’s semifinals under the PPL Park lights.
Instead, Maryland (20-1) made sure history repeated itself when it comes to this rivalry, eliminating Syracuse (15-8) for the third consecutive season while earning a spot in Sunday night’s title game against No. 2 North Carolina with a 10-8 triumph that lacked style points but showed a level of fortitude championship-level teams reveal in these types of situations.
“When we went down 5-4, it was the next draw,” junior and reigning Tewaarton Award winner Taylor Cummings said. “After the next draw, it was put the ball in the back of the net. When it was 5-5, we just treated it like it was 0-0 … We just pushed off from there and put our foot on the pedal.”
Added senior Brooke Griffin, who scored twice: “We just focused on us. It’s always about us.”
Within the first six minutes, Maryland dominated just as it did while winning its first two NCAA matchups against Massachusetts (19-8) and Northwestern (17-5). Cummings scored once and assisted on two other tallies as part of her six-point performance to stake the Terrapins to a 3-0 lead before a series of shots bounced off the pipes thanks in part to steady goaltending from Syracuse senior Kelsey Richardson (7 saves).
Instead of being on the wrong end of a blowout, Maryland’s misfortunes breathed fresh life into the Orange’s upset hopes. Two goals each from All-American Halle Majorana, a Maryland transfer, and Taylor Gait staked Syracuse to a 5-4 lead that forced the defending champions to take a look within.
“I thought our team did a really nice job of resetting and putting our focus on the next play,” Maryland coach Cathy Reese said. “I think sometimes we get a little ahead of ourselves. We just needed to stay present and stay in the moment.”
In the ensuing moments, the Terrapins looked like the wire-to-wire No. 1 team one would expect: Three goals across a four-minute stretch, including a Cummings tally off a Syracuse turnover, gave the top seed a 7-4 halftime lead.
“They finally got a couple of opportunities, a couple of breaks, and they got that three-goal run,” said Syracuse coach Gary Gait, who served as a Maryland assistant coach for nine seasons. “All of a sudden you’re down a couple of goals super quick. You can’t make those errors at key times. Especially against the best team in the country.”
Standing in Maryland’s way of finishing No. 1 will be former Atlantic Coast Conference rival North Carolina in a rematch of the 2013 title game. In one of the best championship games in NCAA Division I women’s lacrosse history, the Terrapins lost 9-8 in triple overtime Cummings’ freshman year.
However, the Terrapins are not looking in their rearview mirror. If Friday night proved anything, they need to stay focused on the present.
“It’s a real exciting game for us to play and focus on playing Sunday,” Griffin said.