Maryland women’s lacrosse coach Cathy Reese has never shied away from the fact that her defense is young. The unit features arguably the best defender in the nation, Lizzie Colson, yet inexperience continues to be an issue for the Terps.
The group has shown improvement all season, but a woeful outing Saturday against Northwestern seemed to indicate it wasn’t ready to take the next step.
However, with a second opportunity Monday against the now-best offense in the nation, the troop showed its capability.
Despite an unsavory result, the Maryland defense played its best half of the season and accomplished a feat no other squad could this year — hold Izzy Scane and Lauren Gilbert without a goal in a single half of play.
“That was really good to see because we’ve been working towards that, but now 30 minutes isn’t good enough,” Reese said after the game. “We need to turn that into a 60-minute game.”
Now, the No. 9 Terps (5-3) are just looking to figure out how to turn in consistent performances on the defensive end as the regular season draws closer to an end.
For 29 minutes and 59 seconds, it looked like Maryland had perfectly executed its game plan.
After crumbling under the immense offensive pressure that No. 3 Northwestern (9-0) brought during the first matchup between the two powerhouses to win 25-12, the Terps held a one-goal lead over the Wildcats in the second game with halftime in sight.
Then in the fading seconds of the first half, the collapse began.
Tori Barretta gave away a costly turnover in the final 10 seconds of the opening period, allowing Erin Coykendall to slot away an over-the-shoulder goal, commencing an 11-0 run. That sunk Maryland’s hopes at returning to the top of the Big Ten in 2021.
“We saw how tough we could be when we came out,” Reese said. “Then the going got tough, and we kind of got caught back on our heels, and that’s a scenario where we need to just keep attacking … keep moving forward and keep that level of intensity and that level of competitiveness for a full 60 minutes.”
Before that momentum-altering goal, the Terps looked as comfortable and confident as they have in any matchup.
One-on-one defending from Maryland had a whole different look, which Colson said the team had worked on the week prior but failed to accomplish successfully in Saturday’s contest.
Barretta, despite her critical turnover, turned in one of the best performances of her career with two forced giveaways and four ground balls. She also played a key role in holding Northwestern to seven goals in the first half — the fewest it has scored in the opening 30 minutes all season.
“She crushed it,” Colson said. “She’s such a tough defender, and I tell her all the time that I’d be scared to go against her.”
The Terps’ defenders clamped down in the first half as the Wildcats racked up 13 turnovers. Maryland used those opportunities to boost its momentum, something the team had not done in prior games this season.
Three of the first-half turnovers came at the behest of Scane and Gilbert, two of the country’s top three goal scorers. The Terps could not put a hold on either one in the first game, but the second contest showed they could do what no one else had until that point.
“We play a style of defense where it’s never one person’s responsibility to shut anyone out, and when we played on Saturday we left whoever was defending [Scane and Gilbert] out to dry,” Reese said. “Every single play they ran right through our team and scored.”
The two would still combine for seven goals in the second half, but holding them scoreless has become somewhat of a fools’ errand. The duo has accounted for 99 goals this year. Maryland as a team has 98 goals on the season.
Reese said that the defensive game plan had not been carried out in game one, but the work the unit had done to make sure its slides were faster was more evident in Monday’s contest.
“Defensively, we just needed to make sure we were leaving at the right time,” Reese said. “We can’t leave a defender by themselves and get so worried about our own person … We started to play a little individual on Saturday rather than together.”
Reese said her squad needs some work on their mental toughness. Even as many of the team’s younger members have not been able to ease into action with a conference-only schedule and weekend series with the same opponent, Reese reiterated the need to stay competitive the entire game.
The Terps will have just four more chances to figure out the knots in their defense before the Big Ten tournament. With Northwestern poised to take the conference title, Maryland will need a good showing to secure its spot in the NCAA tournament.
And against the Wildcats, there were signs of brilliance. Now, the Terps need to amplify it.
“We have it,” Colson said. “It’s there. It’s just going to be a learning experience.”