Shaylan Ahearn flipped up a draw control to herself in the final seconds of the first half. She made it look effortless, just as she’s done throughout the year. But this time, Ahearn sprinted toward the goal herself.
The senior darted around the Rutgers defense until she approached the crease and fired a shot into the back of the net. The score didn’t decide the game or lead the Terps to victory — Maryland already led 9-1. But it capped off a masterful half and summed up the Terps’ performance, which was dominant on all three levels.
The 10-1 deficit at the break was insurmountable for sixth-seeded Rutgers, as Maryland cruised to a 15-9 victory. The victory sends the second-seeded Terps to the conference championship game, where they’ll face top-ranked Northwestern for a chance to claim their fifth Big Ten title.
“I thought the first half was probably our best half we played this season,” coach Cathy Reese said. “We were really executing our game plan, doing what we needed to do offensively and defensively. To hold them to one goal in a half was huge, and for us to score 10 in a half was great.”
Hannah Leubecker got Maryland’s offense going early in the Terps’ regular season battle with Rutgers and did the same on Thursday, opening the scoring with 13:52 left in the first.
But after that, the Terps’ offense was run through Chrissy Thomas.
Thomas found Shannon Smith from behind the cage and put it on the doorstep for Smith to tap in and give Maryland a 2-0 lead less than three minutes into the game. The southpaw was again behind the cage before roaming to the left side. Still on the run, Thomas spotted Smith in a soft spot of the Rutgers zone. Smith fired a shot to the top shelf and past Rutgers goalie.
The Terps’ next goal was identical to the last but featured Libby May as the scorer for Thomas’ third assist.
Thomas matched her career-high of four assists with 5:09 in the first quarter before she set a new best in the second frame.
Eloise Clevenger tallied the next four Maryland scores, three assisted by Thomas, to push the Terps to a 8-0 advantage.
“Elle [Clevenger] is a great cutter inside and we have great chemistry and she’s awesome at finishing when she gets the ball in her stick,” Thomas said. “We prepared for those looks all week in practice, so I knew that my teammates were going to be there and I trusted them.”
Rutgers eventually got on the board with 3:36 to go in the half following six saves from Emily Sterling. It was the longest Maryland held an opponent scoreless all season.
The half was rounded out by a score from May with 15 seconds on the clock and Ahearn’s draw-to-goal find.
“In that first half, we had a flow on the offensive end, we were all moving together in unison,” Ahearn said. “[Defensively] we were just moving on a string. We’re all working together, we’re communicating, we’re listening to one another. … When all of those things come together, that’s what the result is gonna be.”
The third quarter was far more quiet. After 13 and 16 total shots in the first two quarters, Maryland and Rutgers combined for just nine in the third, with the Scarlet Knights outscoring the Terps, 3-2.
Rutgers outscored Maryland again in the fourth quarter, ending the second half on a 8-5 run. But the Terps’ commanding first and second quarters made the Scarlet Knights’ comeback effort fruitless.
Maryland was able to get eight more shots off than Rutgers, in large part thanks to outdrawing the Scarlet Knights 18-10 in the winning effort.
The Terps were led by career nights from Thomas, who finished with one goal and five assists, and Clevenger’s four scores.
Ahearn added a pair of goals, an assist and her fifth double-digit draw control posting of the season. May scored three goals on five attempts, continuing a hot streak of efficient shooting efforts. The senior is averaging 3.43 goals per game on 64.3 percent shooting over her last eight games.
Maryland and title-game opponent Northwestern have the first and second most national titles respectively. The next meeting will be the two’s fifth matchup in the Big Ten championship in the tournament’s eight years.
Though the Terps lost 13-6 when they squared off with the Wildcats in the regular season finale, they’ll enter Saturday coming off of one of their strongest outings of the year.
“People kind of saw it the last time we played them, [but] it’s going to be a good game,” Ahearn said. “It’s going to be a battle the entire time. Getting to play [Northwestern] in a competition like that, that’s why we play lacrosse.”