EAST HARTFORD, Conn. — Saturday’s wait was worth it for the Maryland men’s lacrosse team.
Maryland (17-0) will meet seventh-seeded Cornell (14-4), a 17-10 winner over sixth-seeded Rutgers earlier Saturday, in Monday’s title game. The Terps will play in their seventh championship game in 12 seasons under Coach John Tillman while aiming to become the first undefeated national champion since Virginia in 2006.
The Terps also became the first team to reach back-to-back title games with an undefeated record since 1981-82 North Carolina, which won the championship each season.
It wasn’t as overwhelming of a performance as Maryland has become accustomed to. The Terps crushed Vermont and Virginia to reach the semifinals for the ninth time since 2011 but needed a more workmanlike effort to dispatch Princeton for the second time this season.
“It’s a semifinal game, so you expect it to be tough,” Tillman said. “We won the game by five goals, and we didn’t even feel like we played great. Sometimes we have to catch ourselves and be like, ‘That’s a good team we just beat.’ ”
Erik Peters made 13 saves and Alexander Vardaro scored twice for the fifth-seeded Tigers (11-5), who were making their first semifinal appearance since 2004.
That lengthy absence was extended when thunderstorms in the area sent the Cornell-Rutgers game into a 3-hour, 38-minute delay just after halftime began. Instead of starting around 2:30 p.m., Maryland and Princeton didn’t get underway until 6:28 before an announced crowd of 21,668 — the smallest for a semifinal without pandemic restrictions since 2001.
When the game finally started, Maryland pounced on the Tigers, building a 5-1 lead by the end of the first quarter after defensive midfielder Bubba Fairman deposited a transition opportunity. Far more concerning than any other on-field development was the departure of short stick defensive midfielder Roman Puglise with a shoulder injury.
Tillman said he did not know whether Puglise would be able to play Monday.
“He could break his leg and want to play,” Tillman said. “I love him to death, and I love his passion. We’re going to have to protect him from himself — maybe steal his helmet or something.”
The Terps stretched their lead to 7-2 before Princeton caught its biggest break of the game. Maryland long pole John Geppert was flagged for a three-minute nonreleaseable penalty for an illegal body check to the head of Princeton’s Beau Pederson.
The Tigers got within 7-4 by halftime but missed their other three shots on the man-up. When they got their first even-strength possession of the third quarter, the Terps quickly got a goal back when Jonathan Donville found Wisnauskas in the crease.
“We overcommunicated, and that was kind of what we were trying to do,” McNaney said. “Out there it was a little loud, but props to our defensive guys. I don’t think they got a shot on goal in that three-minute period [after the goal]. … I think that was very big for us in terms of momentum. Our offense and defense kind of fed on that.”
Maryland then ripped off three goals in a 61-second span — the last two by Owen Murphy in a seven-second stretch — to go up 11-4.
“Those were critical,” Tillman said.
Wisnauskas passed Jared Bernhardt with his 203rd goal with 1:32 remaining. Entering his final game Monday, Wisnauskas ranks fifth in NCAA history in goals.
Saturday also demonstrated McNaney’s fondness for NCAA semifinals. The junior’s career high for saves had been 17 against Duke, which came in last year’s semis on the same field.
Now, Maryland faces the challenge of finishing the job for the first time since 2017 — and cementing its place among the best teams in recent history. Only three teams have completed a perfect season as champions in the past 30 years: 1997 Princeton, 2005 Johns Hopkins and 2006 Virginia.
On Memorial Day, the Terps will have a chance to join that group.