BALTIMORE — The most improbable goal of Matt Rambo’s season arrived with less than a second remaining in the first quarter of Saturday night’s Big Ten tournament title game against Rutgers. Seemingly without an angle near the right pipe, Rambo muscled his way to a groundball and whistled a desperation heave at the goal anyway, watching it clank off the far post and into the net as time expired.
Maryland’s sideline threw its hands up in disbelief, celebrating the latest bizarre play in what has been a wild year. But the Terrapins (14-2) also earned their luck in their 14-8 win, looking relentless from the onset to claim their first Big Ten title and position themselves for a potential No. 1 overall seed in next week’s NCAA tournament.
“I saw the ball in the air and I knew there was only a couple seconds left. I kind of just grabbed it and threw it at the net,” said Rambo, who matched a career high with six points and was named the tournament’s most valuable player. “Luckily it went it in.”
Maryland, which hasn’t earned a top seed in the NCAA tournament since 1987, will learn its fate Sunday night when the field is announced. It will enter the next phase of the postseason as one of the hottest teams in the country after Saturday’s school-record 13th straight win, using torrid, unselfish offense and clutch goalkeeping to stymie the Scarlet Knights (11-5).
It was also a memorable night for Rambo, who finished with three goals and three assists and set the tone with crisp offense from the onset. The junior attackman, who now has registered at least one point in 35 consecutive games, scored his 100th career goal to give Maryland a two-goal lead in the first quarter, but it was his aforementioned goal to beat the first-quarter buzzer that gave Maryland a 5-2 lead and dazzled the crowd at Homewood Field.
Rambo was also a facilitator Saturday, helping open up a Maryland offense that outshot Rutgers 47-38 and registered nine first-half goals. He wasn’t the only player to post prolific numbers, either, as sophomore Connor Kelly finished with four goals and junior Dylan Maltz added a hat trick. And then there was Kyle Bernlohr, the senior goalie who finished with 12 saves and never allowed Rutgers to close in on Maryland’s lead in the second half. The Terrapins finished with five more groundballs (28 to 23) and forced Rutgers into five failed clears (11 for 16).
“I pick up on different things and the defense made adjustments,” Bernlohr said. “That was just a pretty gritty win to be a part of.”
The Scarlet Knights opened the second half with a six-on-four advantage but squandered an opportunity when Bernlohr came up with an acrobatic save to keep the lead at four. That began, in spite of Rambo’s buzzer-beater, perhaps the most memorable sequence of the night. After midfielder Bryan Cole (two goals, two assists) helped spring a fast-break opportunity with a crushing hit near midfield, Kelly scooped a groundball and rifled in his third goal of the night to give Maryland a 10-5 advantage.
“When Rutgers tried to get back, it just seemed like, whether it was Matt, or Kyle making a big save, having such a big second half, or Brian or Connor Kelly, we were just able to respond,” Maryland Coach John Tillman said.
Rambo completed his hat trick with 1:39 remaining in the third quarter, beating Scarlet Knights goalkeeper Kris Alleyne to push the lead to 13-7. It was the finishing touch on a relentless performance. Along with his six points, Rambo took 12 shots and tied for the game high by scooping up four groundballs.
Rambo, who has posted 19 points in his past four games, finally exited the game midway through the first half as Tillman took a number of starters off the field. His teammates embraced him as the final seconds ticked down on Maryland’s first conference tournament title since 2011.
“We’re just clicking more than we were,” Rambo said. “It takes time to mesh and click.”