McNaney’s 19 Saves Lead Maryland Into Title Game vs. Cornell

McNaney's 19 Saves Lead Maryland Into Title Game vs.  Cornell

(Inside Lacrosse Photo: Myles Tintle)

EAST HARTFORD, Conn. — A halftime coaching maneuver, another milestone from the program’s all-time points leader and a career day from goalie Logan McNaney helped the undefeated Terps advance to their seventh national championship game in 11 NCAA Tournaments under head coach John TIllman on Saturday night.

Maryland survived its biggest and most physical test of the season via a 13-8 win over fifth-seeded Princeton in front of a portion of the announced 21,688 fans following a three-and-a-half hour weather delay at Rentschler Field.

Even if it wasn’t their best showing of this historic 17-0 season so far, Tillman still wants his team to recognize what they just did.

“We won the game by five goals, and we didn’t even feel like we played great,” said Tillman. “I think sometimes we have to catch ourselves and be like, listen, that’s a good team we just beat.”

The pivotal moment of the game came when John Geppert was sent to the penalty box for a three-minute, non-releasable illegal body check on Beau Pederson’s drive to the net from the right wing. Princeton’s leading scorer Chris Brown cashed in on a backdoor look up a man at the end of the first half, the Tigers were poised to score a few more down three goals.

“Yeah, we talked about that at halftime, if we could kill that, that would be a huge momentum swing,” Tillman said postgame, “because when you get a three-man unreleasable, if you cash in, you’re going to get the momentum. But sometimes if you don’t, there’s a little bit of like, ‘Oh, man, we didn’t really make the most of that opportunity.’”

After Princeton elected to hold on to the ball for the final 25 seconds of the second quarter to maintain possession without a face-off to start the third quarter, their offense was left with just a minute left on the extra man and with only 30 seconds left on the shot clock. Jake Stevens managed to shake his way to a low-angle, high-difficulty shot as the shot clock expired.

Tillman said he and his staff knew Princeton would run one of their man-up plays coming out of the break, and to throw the Tigers EMO unit off, Tillman had SSDM Jake Higgins shut off midfielder Sam English (who was held to one assist and missed all four of his shots) immediately as the whistle blew to start the third quarter. The Princeton offense was disrupted and were lucky enough to even get an attempt through Stevens.

“Going into the half, luckily we were able to game plan that and kind of had some options of what they set up in,” McNaney said. “Our defense did a great job. We over-communicated. That was kind of what we were trying to do out there. It was a little loud.”

Higgins replaced first-team All-American SSDM Roman Puglise on the man down after Puglise left the game in the first quarter holding his right arm in pain after sliding to Princeton midfielder Alex Vardaro. After being ruled questionable to return by a Maryland spokesperson, Puglise did not get back in the game.

While the Terps are still re-evaluating, Puglise’s status for Monday’s title game is up in the air.

“If it’s ever something that, listen, we’d be putting him in harm’s way, I’m just not going to let him do it,” Tillman said. “You know Roman, he could break his leg and he’ll want to play. He’s the type of guy, love him to death, I love his passion from him, we’re going to have to protect him from himself, maybe steal his helmet from him or something.

But the Terps weren’t finished with that crucial man-down stop, as Brett Makar turned it over on the clear and man-down specialist Jack McDonald was sent to the box himself for a 30-second push. A couple shots sent wide of McNaney’s net and the Terps were back in business on the other end.

Wisnauskas received a zipped skip pass from Jonathan Donville (1G, 2A) and his righty quick stick doubled Princeton’s scoring total with three-and-a-half minutes passed in the third frame to open up the floodgates to a 4-0 Maryland run.

Three goals in a minute started when Jack Brennan stormed to his left and got to the middle of the field before scoring on the run to make it 9-4. Owen Murphy was quiet until he received a pass across from Anthony DeMaio after another scrappy play from Keegan Khan (3G, 2A) set up a hitch and rip from Murphy. Six seconds later and Luke Wierman (13-of-22) got it to Murphy at the point at 11-4.

A scrappy Alex Slusher goal and a lefty alley goal from Vardaro made it a five-goal game entering the fourth quarter, but a Wisnauskas high bouncer and a snipe to the top left (both off excellent ball movement) gave “Groot” his 202nd and 203rd career goals. Only five other Division I players have reached the 200-goal milestone: Mac O’Keefe, Justin Guterding, Zach Greer, Chris Gray, and Jared Bernhardt.

Goals from Jamie Atkinson and Vardaro gave the Tigers a respectable finish to what was an incredible season for a program that hasn’t been to the Final Four stage since 2004.

“When we came back in September we just committed to it, believed in each other,” senior defenseman George Baughan said. “We were unranked. To come out and finish at the Final Four I’d say is a success.”

Baughan drew the Wisnauskas matchup while a number of different poles rotated on Maryland’s other two attackmen, as defensive depth wasn’t something coach Matt Madalon was bashful about showingcasing.

On the other end, after Ajax Zappitello erased reigning Tournament Most Outstanding Player Connor Shellenberger in the Quarterfinals, he held Slusher quiet other than a goal off a GB scramble. Makar was effective on the more physical Brown (1-of-8 shooting) and rookie Coulter Mackesy couldn’t consistently win his matchup with Matt Rahill (1-of-8 shooting) either.

After missing the Feb. 26 encounter in College Park due to COVID protocols Tyler Sandoval won more than half his draws (11-of-20) against a guy in Wierman who had just dominated a couple All-Americans in Vermont’s Tommy Burke and Virginia’s Petey LaSalla.

Maryland shortstick defensive midfielder Bubba Fairman was particularly key to the win, causing four turnovers, scooping up four groundballs and taking an interception to the house for the Terps’ fifth goal of the game to extend their first-quarter lead to four.

In Puglise’s absence, Fairman was all over the place and even had a defensive play where he didve in front of a shot from the top right point in the second quarter.

“I thought it was funny, Bubba jumping in front of that shot and hitting the back of his head. That was awesome,” McNaney said.

Khan’s first quarter hat trick set the tone against Princeton’s stiff defense, but it was his scrappiness on the ground that showed how good Maryland is at the little things.

“I was pretty excited to be here. Really just wanted to come out and play as hard as I could, and I thought our offensive flow at the start was awesome,” Khan said.

Now with a couple Cornell alums on their sideline in Tillman and Donville, Maryland finds itself one game away from becoming the first team since 2006 to finish a title-winning season without a loss. But to do so following the passing of legendary Cornell coach and Maryland alum Richie Moran makes the occasion all the more special.

“Crazy, right? Man, he’s up there smiling, I can tell you that much, his alma mater and a place that he called home for a long time,” said Tillman. “Man, I don’t know, but sometimes stuff, weird stuff happens, and I know he’s probably super excited and proud of both programs.”

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