Maryland women’s lacrosse knew Denver would pose a threat in its NCAA tournament quarterfinal matchup with its top-ranked scoring defense and notoriety for the number of fouls the squad concedes.
While the Terps prepared for the potentially problematic zone defense in the week leading up to the matchup, their hustle and grit on Saturday made it a non-factor.
With 3:27 remaining in the first half — after a scrappy sequence — the Pioneers tried to pass back to their goalkeeper. But attacker Caroline Steele was on hand to knock the ball away, scoop it up and finish — one of many moments where Maryland’s No. 1-seed status rang true.
Steele’s strike opened up an 8-2 Terps’ lead to blow the game wide open. Maryland continued the onslaught from there, rolling to a 17-8 win for its 11th straight final four appearance and setting up a third meeting with Northwestern.
“So proud of our team and of our effort on both ends of the field,” coach Cathy Reese said. “We came out on fire.”
Denver tried to establish its defensive tone early on, with Steele being slammed to the ground after shooting just 13 seconds into the game.
But Maryland made good on its first real attempt to break the zone. With bodies moving, the Terps drew a foul and secured a free-position opportunity. Midfielder Jen Giles made a beeline for goal and finished, slamming her stick into the ground in celebration of a 1-0 lead.
Attacker Bea Behrins prevented Maryland from going back-to-back by notching a goal of her own. The sophomore willed her way through the Terps defense, parting a sea of clashing sticks and finishing to tie the game at one.
Two scores from midfielder Erica Evans — one from close range, and another off a free position — extended Maryland’s lead to 3-1, killing some of the momentum the Pioneers had hoped to establish out of the gate with their unique defensive looks.
“We really focused on trying to do what we do well within our zone,” Denver coach Liza Kelly said. “I don’t think we performed as well as I think we’re capable of.”
Despite its slow pace, Denver stuck around early — and showed some flair in the process. Attacker Hannah Liddy went one-on-one with defender Meghan Doherty, and threw an audacious behind-the-back assist to attacker Kendra Lanuza.
But the Terps consistently found holes in Denver’s defense to get on the board. Steele notched two, both from close range, to push the Maryland lead to 5-2. And with 13 minutes remaining in the first, the Terps tacked onto the lead thanks to a bit of luck. A pass from Evans glanced off Giles’ stick before dropping perfectly for attacker Brindi Griffin. The junior took advantage of the good fortune, scoring comfortably.
Steele completed a first-half hat trick with eight minutes remaining, pivoting and finishing behind-the-back for a 7-2 lead.
Griffin and Steele added one more apiece to extend the lead to 9-2 with two minutes before halftime.
“Seeing everybody connect on passes, a ton of assists,” Griffin said. “It makes it more fun when it’s an assisting game.”
Denver pulled one back right before the buzzer, as attacker Quintin Hoch-Bullen scooped her own rebound and bounced a shot past a helpless Megan Taylor.
Still, the Terps rolled into halftime with a 9-3 advantage, and although the Pioneers stuck to their tough brand of lacrosse, Maryland produced consistently to open up a sizable lead.
“I thought we did a nice job on the offensive end,” Reese said. “Of being patient and really working the ball to find openings.”
And the Terps wasted no time in piling on in the second half. Denver upped its aggression in an attempt to steal possessions, but Maryland exercised patience. The Terps were rewarded for doing so when Steele cut across the crease and finished backhanded for her fifth of the day.
Evans added a second of the half from a free position look, finding the top right corner. The Terps continued to pour it on. Steele contributed her sixth goal — and her 200th in a Maryland uniform — with a left-handed finish that beat goalkeeper Carson Gregg with sheer power.
Griffin added two more to her tally thanks to two ferocious cut backs with equally athletic finishes. And although Denver pulled one back during Maryland’s stretch, the Terps led 14-4 with 19:44 remaining.
“It’s always fun doing stuff like that out there,” Griffin said. “It gets everyone fired up.”
Maryland would continue to run up the score. Midfielder Meg Siverson scored for the first time since April 17. Attacker Kelsey Cummings — with two goals to her name in 2019 entering the day — also notched a tally from a free position.
“To see a player like Kelsey Cummings come in towards the end of the game and just stick it in the upper corner,” Reese said. “I think I jumped off the ground and double fist pumped.”
As the final whistle blew, the Terps rushed to Taylor. The 17-8 blowout marked the senior class’ 45th consecutive home win, and Maryland’s 87th on the trot. The Terps overcame the grit and grind of the Pioneers, setting up a third match of the year with Northwestern — the only team to blemish Maryland’s otherwise perfect 2019 record.
“We’re excited to get back to another final four,” Steele said. “And can’t wait to get back to work.”