CHESTER, Pa.– Taylor Cummings placed her hands on her hips as the Maryland women’s lacrosse team stood in a line waiting for the postgame handshakes while North Carolina celebrated its national championship on the field.
Cummings had been in that situation before. When the senior was a freshman, the Terps fell to the Tar Heels in the 2013 national championship game in triple overtime. Cummings has led the Terps to two titles since then, including a triumph over the Tar Heels last season.
Sunday afternoon’s rematch was a chance for Cummings to add another title to her collection. But unlike the Terps’ come-from-behind win in 2015, the team couldn’t rally at for a three-peat championship.
The No. 1-seed Terps fell, 13-7, to the No. 3-seed Tar Heels in the title match at Talen Energy Stadium. For the first time since May 1, 2015, the Terps suffered a loss, snapping a 26-game winning streak and the team’s bid for its first undefeated campaign since 2001.
“[North Carolina] just capitalized on their opportunities,” said Cummings, who’s a member of a senior class that went 88-4 over its four years in College Park. “We had plenty of them, we just didn’t stick them. You can’t do that against a really good team, and we just did that today.”
From the start, the Tar Heels, who have won 16 consecutive contests since falling to Maryland by one goal in February, controlled the game. They scored six of the game’s first seven goals, putting the nation’s best offense in an early hole.
Tar Heels attacker Aly Messinger, the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, tallied three assists in that stretch as part of a two-goal, four-assist performance. She led a North Carolina attack that had five players score at least twice. Attacker Megan Whittle (three goals) and midfielder Caroline Steele (two goals) were the only two Terps to reach that mark.
“It’s just confidence and belief,” Messinger said of the team’s ability to score on Maryland’s fifth-ranked defense. “There was no questioning what was going to happen.”
Maryland’s opening period was statistically one of the team’s worst of the season. The Terps opened the game 1-for-9 shooting, and they turned the ball over five times before halftime.
North Carolina (20-2) took advantage of Maryland’s mistakes. Coach Cathy Reese has said all postseason she wanted her team to “put their foot on the gas and not let up,” but the Tar Heels didn’t give the Terps the opportunity to control the contest.
The Terps went 3-for-11 on draws in the first 30 minutes, and the Tar Heels finished with a 13-9 advantage in the circle.
Despite the lack of possessions, the Terps, behind two of Whittle’s scores, managed three unanswered goals to close the half with a 6-4 deficit. The third in the stretch ignited cheers from the Terps faithful as Steele banked in an over-the-shoulder, behind-the-back look to fool Tar Heels goalkeeper Megan Ward with 13 seconds left in the frame.
North Carolina coach Jenny Levy, though, leaned on her team’s past experiences to ensure her players didn’t succumb to the momentum shift during intermission.
“Taylor Cummings has been a wizard at the draw,” Levy said. “When you win one [championship], you start to understand the mentality you need throughout the course of a whole season.”
The Terps appeared poised to replicate last season’s second-half burst when Cummings and Whittle powered the Terps to the 2015 crown with two goals a apiece in the last period.
Less than seven minutes into the second half Sunday, Cummings sprinted past a Tar Heels defender to score her only goal of the afternoon. She dropped her stick, threw her hands up in the air and hugged Steele.
The tally closed North Carolina’s advantage to 7-6 as the Terps scored two goals in less than two minutes early in the frame.
“We were hoping we could turn it around like we did last year,” Cummings said. “I think that was our chance, and we kind of missed it.”
North Carolina dominated possession after that. Though Maryland finished the game with a 28-24 shooting advantage, the Tar Heels closed the game on a 6-1 run. They passed the ball around their zone for the the majority of the last seven minutes, content to keep the Terps from mounting a comeback.
With 11 seconds remaining in regulation, Cummings scooped up a ground ball and attempted to score. Her last shot as a Terp ended as one of Ward’s career-high 14 saves, and the two-time Tewaaraton Award winner, who is the favorite to win her third next week, ended her college career in the same way as her first national championship.
“It’s hard when you lose one game all season and it’s your last,” Reese said. “I’m proud of our seniors and the legacy they’ve left at the University of Maryland.”