For 30 minutes Sunday, it looked like this time around it would be different. For 30 minutes, it looked like Northwestern lacrosse could give No. 1 Maryland a match. And then in a few dire second-half minutes, everything -- a game, a season, an era -- came crashing down.
The Wildcats went into their Elite Eight matchup with top-ranked Maryland as underdogs, having lost to the Terrapins 16-5 back in March, but held their own early, and went into halftime down 6-4. However, the Terps came out of the break firing on all cylinders, and with one authoritative early-second-half run, closed the door on Northwestern's streak of 10 straight Final Fours.
This was the first ever NCAA tournament quarterfinal meeting between these two schools because, normally, they meet much later in the tournament. This time, however, the top-seeded Terps showed they were a class above in their 17-5 thrashing of 8-seed Wildcats.
On the backs of a four-goal efforts from seniors Brooke Griffin and Kristen Lamon, and a hat trick from fellow senior Erin Collins, the Terrapins flexed their offensive muscle and the Wildcats could not hang with them. Against such a talented, experienced team, the Wildcats showed their inexperience in allowing numerous backdoor cuts and getting burned repeatedly by their aggressive double-teaming.
This game was close for most of the first half, and Northwestern actually had a 2-1 lead after back-to-back goals from their two All-West/Midwest Region IWLCA honorees, freshman Selena Lasota and sophomore Sheila Nesselbush.
Maryland quickly went on a 3-0 run to take a 4-2 lead, but then Lasota got her second of the day to cut the Terrapin's lead in half and make it a 4-3 contest with a little over seven minutes left before the break.
Maryland got two more before the break, but this time Nesslebush added her second, sidearming a low shot to the far post past Terrapin keeper Alex Fitzpatrick, to keep NU in it. Nesselbush's goal came with 38 seconds left and looked like it was an important to give the Wildcats some much needed momentum heading into the break.
Northwestern's first half success was fueled by tremendous results in the draw circle from freshman Shelby Fredericks, going against one of the nation's top players in Maryland senior Taylor Cummings. Going in, we knew the draw was going to be very important and the Wildcats kept things close in the first by dominating in the circle, 8-3.
But once the second half started, both the Wildcats' results in the draw circle and on the scoreboard fared considerably worse. Northwestern managed to keep the game slow and to their liking in the first half, but immediately once the second half started, the Terrapins made a conscious effort to speed the game up and let their skilled offensive players take over.
Maryland scored two quick goals in the opening 1:30 of the second half and the onslaught was on. The Terrapins would go on to score nine unanswered before Kaleigh Craig scored her only goal of the game, snapping a streak of 12 straight games with multiple goals.
Going into the game, besides the draw control, secondary scoring was going to be important for the Wildcats if they wanted a chance to steal this game in College Park. But the visiting team just did not have that today as only three players scored, compared to seven for the home team.
This is surely a disappointing loss for coach Kelly Amonte Hiller and her team, whose streak of 10 straight Final Four appearances was snapped. But fans can take solace in the fact this was a very young team that, on the whole, probably outperformed expectations given the "down" year some were preparing for. Losing two key contributors in attacker Kara Mupo and goalie Bridget Bianco will hurt, but Amonte Hiller has one of the top ranked goalies coming in to fill Bianco's void next year, and with the many talented attackers already on the roster, a few of them taking the next step should be more than enough to offset the lose of Mupo.
The Terrapins now move onto Philadelphia next weekend for the Final Four, where they will meet 4-seed Syracuse, who defeated Loyola (Md.) 10-7 on Saturday. The other semifinal will be between 2-seed North Carolina and 3-seed Duke, two schools separated by less than ten miles on Tobacco Road.