BALTIMORE — Throughout the season, the Maryland women’s lacrosse team always found a way to prevail — once when a lightning-delayed game moved indoors, twice in overtime and 18 times in all as it ended up the last undefeated squad in Division I.
But in Sunday’s Big Ten tournament championship game at Johns Hopkins’s Homewood Field, the No. 1 Terrapins fell behind Northwestern early and never found a way to contain the Wildcats’ attack or break through their defense. As Maryland made uncharacteristic mistakes, No. 5 Northwestern prevailed, 16-11, to deny the Terps their fourth straight Big Ten tournament title.
As Maryland’s players and staff members stood still on the field after the game, awaiting the announcement of the all-tournament team, Northwestern’s players bobbed up and down with excitement, sliding into purple championship shirts and hats while posing with a team flag and the conference championship banner. That was the scene the Terps had become accustomed to in the past few years. This year, they could not take part.
"The world’s not ending,” Coach Cathy Reese said. “We’re all right.”
The game held plenty of signs that the loss could be just a blip, not a worrisome prognosis for the rest of the postseason. Maryland shot 34 percent, its lowest mark of the year. The Terps controlled just 3 of 15 draws in the first half. The players, Reese said, came out flat as the Wildcats played with energy and intensity. But mistakes are fixable, and the Terps have a week until the NCAA tournament begins. They are the No. 1 overall seed for the seventh straight season and open at noon Sunday in College Park against James Madison or Stony Brook.
“We’re not done,” defender Lizzie Colson said. “We know what we need to work on, and we’re excited to get out there.”
Heading into the conference tournament, Maryland seemed poised to collect a title or two this postseason. But in the championship game, the Terps never led, and a long scoreless stretch to close the first half handed Northwestern (14-4) a cushion it never relinquished. Late in the game, Maryland trimmed Northwestern’s lead, once as large as seven, to four but never came any closer.
Northwestern, which had the No. 2 scoring offense in the nation entering the game, sliced through Maryland’s defense, which allowed its most goals in a game this season. Its previous high also came against Northwestern, in a 17-13 regular season win moved inside by bad weather.
“They’re a really quick team, so they’re really hard to keep up with,” Colson said. “I think we had a few lapses that they capitalized on. They were taking advantages of our mistakes.”
The Northwestern defense challenged the Terps, too. Goalkeeper Mallory Weisse made 10 saves Sunday and earned conference tournament MVP honors. She said her defenders “did an incredible job really forcing the shots that we wanted to see as goalies.”
Early on, when Weisse made a few saves on good looks, Reese said she could see a bit of frustration from her players as Maryland’s deficit grew.
In the second half, Maryland goalkeeper Megan Taylor notched her 700th career save, becoming the third player in program history to reach that mark. But Taylor, the national leader in save percentage, gave up 15 goals — Northwestern’s other tally came late in the game when Maryland opted to leave an empty net in favor of a double-team — and finished with eight saves.
As a whole, Maryland’s defense needs to communicate better than it did Sunday, said Reese, who pointed to how Northwestern scored 12 unassisted goals.
Since joining the Big Ten in 2015, Maryland has dominated women’s lacrosse, winning the regular season conference title each year. Until Sunday, this year’s seniors had never lost a conference game — in the regular season or the conference tournament.
“This is an opportunity for us to take a hard look,” Reese said. “Maybe people can take a deep breath. These seniors that have kind of lived under a microscope for four years . . . just take a deep breath and reset and play with a renewed enthusiasm and love for the sport.”
Reese mentioned the 2015 team, her previous squad that had lost in the Big Ten tournament. That team hadn’t lost a game, either. But those players, Reese said, used the defeat as fuel. Four wins later, they lifted the national championship trophy.