Braden Erksa had a marvelous first half in his first career postseason outing. The Big Ten Freshman of the Year passed his career-high in assists with five alone in the first half, dominating Rutgers’ defense through his unselfishness.
His final feed was an excellent one, finding an open Eric Spanos in front of the cage for an overhand score. That goal put the Terps up seven with just over seven minutes to go, enough to hold off a late Scarlet Knights rally.
Erksa accounted for seven of No. 3 seed Maryland men’s lacrosse’s 14 goals in a 14-11 Big Ten quarterfinals victory over No. 6 seed Rutgers, clinching its spot in the semifinals and setting up a rematch with in-state rival and No. 2 seed Johns Hopkins on Thursday.
“Happy for our guys to get a win, to have another opportunity to continue in the tournament,” coach John Tillman said.
Maryland’s offense started out on fire against Rutgers in the schools’ first meeting earlier this month. That remained the same in round two.
Daniel Kelly shined in the opening quarter, turning two of his three shots into scores. The junior attacker has been a consistent threat for the Terps all season long — he’s registered at least one goal in every game this year — and that continued into the start of postseason play.
Kelly wasn’t the only Terp to strike in the frame. Jack Koras — just like he did in the first matchup — connected, finding the back of the net on a bounce shot. Daniel Maltz added a strike with 13 seconds left in the quarter.
Maryland recorded a four-goal opening period just like it did when the teams faced off in Piscataway.
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The Terps kept their foot on the gas in the second quarter, starting with Kelly. He recorded his fourth hat trick of the season on a score less than three minutes into the frame. Maltz kept the firepower going as he weaved his way through contact to find his second goal of the night before halftime.
Zach Whittier registered the first goal of his postseason career late in the second quarter and Big Ten Defender of the Year Brett Makar added a score, his first of the season and second of his career.
Makar’s score capped off an eight-goal first-half for the Terps, just like they had in the first matchup.
Maltz’ third goal of the night — this one from just in front of the cage off a beautiful Dante Trader Jr. pass — kicked off a six-goal second half. Owen Murphy scored the Terps’ 10th goal of the night late in the third, marking the 11th-straight game in which the Maryland offense reached the double-digit mark.
Maryland added four more goals in the final frame, capping off a beautiful offensive performance that Erksa’s work as a disher made possible.
[No. 4 Maryland men’s lacrosse falls to No. 7 Johns Hopkins in regular season finale, 12-11]
Erksa finished the regular season second on the team in assists. The attacker turned into an excellent feeder over the latter-portion of Maryland’s season, entering the night with eight assists in his last six outings.
Erksa’s unselfishness continued against the Scarlet Knights. He registered five first-half assists and finished with six, a career high.
“This whole year I’ve just been trying to get one percent better every day, and my teammates since I’ve really gotten here have supported me 100 percent. And that means a lot to me,” Erksa said. “Just … being more and more confident every game, trying to play my best lacrosse, not only for myself, but for my teammates as well.”
While Erksa shined as a feeder for the Maryland offense, Jack Aimone starred as a scorer for Rutgers early on. The junior midfielder entered the contest trailing his squad’s leader in goals by four, but trimmed that deficit to just one by halftime.
He started his barrage five minutes in, whizzing a shot past his defender into the back of the net to put the Scarlet Knights on the board in the first period — a feat they failed to accomplish in the first meeting.
Aimone struck twice more within the first four minutes of the second quarter, registering Rutgers’ first three goals of the night.
But the Maryland defense locked in on Aimone and prevented him from scoring on both of his third quarter shots. The Scarlet Knights’ offense struggled as their leading scorer was silenced, finishing the third period without a goal.
“We had an opportunity to … take a deep breath in the locker room,” Makar said. “Were able to put the film up on the TV, break down, see where we were making errors, making mistakes. There were a couple times we were over helping, over sliding, and then a couple times where we didn’t support. We … made a couple adjustments where we were sliding from what angles we were taking.”
Maryland’s offensive onslaught overpowered Rutgers, who’s first 45-minute struggles proved too much to handle.