April 19, 2011

Tuesdays with Corey: Maryland Has the Look of a Final Four Contender

by Corey McLaughlin | LaxMagazine.com

In a game of inches, both Joe Cummings' hit pipe and Saturday's 12-11 overtime loss to Johns Hopkins were aberrations, writes Corey McLaughlin, in what might otherwise be a special season for the Terps.

© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com

The words "win a national championship" dangled at the tip of John Tillman's tongue, but he held back.

"We just lost to the No. 3 team in the country by a fraction," the first-year Maryland coach said a few minutes after the Terrapins lost to rival Johns Hopkins, 12-11, Saturday night in College Park. "We're right in the mix with the best teams in the country. If we can stay healthy and continue to improve, why can't we ... have a great run here? I look at Notre Dame, they were 7-6, lucky to get in (the tournament), and they were an overtime away from being the national champions last year."

Tillman didn't say "win a national championship" as he could have, but he certainly provided enough circumstantial evidence as to what he was thinking.

If all this season we've seen Johns Hopkins' young team grow up and put itself among the postseason contenders, what exactly did we see from Maryland Saturday night in a losing effort to those same Blue Jays?

Perhaps the same. The Terps are a contender, minus the young team part. They have sixteen seniors and many of them key starters all over the field.

Maryland should have, could have, and if they played the game another time, maybe would have won Saturday night in the rain at Byrd Stadium. Joe Cummings hit the left pipe on the Terps' first possession of overtime, on a shot that Ryan Young, who passed Cummings the ball, said Cummings would make "99 times out of 100." An inch more to the right and Maryland was the winner.

The Terps lost, but it wasn't as if they lost badly. They led 7-2 at halftime, but they did not collapse. The Blue Jays made some spectacular one-on-one efforts en route to going ahead 11-9. Zach Palmer's behind-the-back goal from about 10 yards straightaway to tie the score at 9 comes to mind. As does Chris Boland's run from 'X' around the right side, and shot over defenseman Max Schmidt and the helmet of Maryland goaltender Niko Amato. And Amato, the redshirt freshman who otherwise played solid, made two mistakes on outlet passes that led directly to a pair of Jays' goals. That's four goals that may have not happened on another given night.

But after all that, Maryland rallied to tie the game late in the fourth quarter.

Young, one of Maryland's 16 seniors, was asked if Saturday's game reminded him of one earlier this season, when the Terps blew a 4-1 first-quarter lead at home against North Carolina and couldn't figure out how to score on a zone defense. He said Saturday night was completely different. They were never out of this game. Coincidentally, Maryland faces North Carolina in the ACC tournament Friday.

"We put that game in the past," Young said of the earlier meeting with the Tar Heels. "It's not like we completely collapsed, like we were scared to make plays. It's Hopkins-Maryland. Today was a completely different game, a completely different atmosphere. We went on our run. They went on their run. ... We're going to come back on Monday, fired up like we always are and get ready for our first ACC game. Our goal is ACC championship. We're not dwelling on this game."

On faceoffs Saturday night, Maryland was able to control Hopkins' specialist Matt Dolente like few other teams have this season. Dolente entered with a 70.2 win percentage on faceoffs, but won just 12 of 27 (44 percent) against Curtis Holmes and the Terps' wingmen.

After the game, the team may have had an even better performance. Before Cummings began talking about his missed game-winning shot in a postgame press conference, he looked understandably defeated; he stared down at the table in front of him as Tillman answered some questions. But when Cummings spoke, he struck a redemptive tone similar to what 21-year-old pro golfer Rory McIlroy sounded like in a postround interview after blowing up on the back nine of the final round of the Masters two weeks ago.

Cummings' thoughts: "I was pretty excited. I got open, Ryan made an awesome feed, like he does all the time, and I just hit the pipe. ... They made a good play in overtime to score the goal, and they got the win. That's sometimes how it happens, but we're going to respond and we're going to come back as a team. We win as a team and we lose as a team. We're a family. We're going to move on and keep going."

An interesting part about Maryland's situation is that if the Terps played in any other conference, they could find themselves on the tournament bubble with their current 8-3 record. But a team that has only lost to Duke and Johns Hopkins in overtime and North Carolina should not be kept out of the big tournament.

Even if Maryland loses for a second time to North Carolina in the ACC tournament Friday the Terps have already made a case for an NCAA tournament berth, and an argument that they could make a Notre Dame-type tournament run, circa 2010, come May. That is, if their pre-NCAA tournament record doesn't turn out all that great. There's a good chance it may turn out fine.

Johns Hopkins coach Dave Pietramala said Maryland is "as good a team as there is in the country. That's as good a team as we faced."

A few minutes earlier, Tillman said: "If that team is the third best team in the country, we're an inch away from being No. 3 ourselves. What we showed is we're making progress. A lot is going to happen in the next six weeks. Hopefully we can continue to improve and grow, and work on some things so we can poise ourselves for a big run here."

High Five

Upset Alert rolls on. Checking the results from last week, we were a respectable 2-for-5. It's an even more respectable percentage when considering two other picks nearly panned out. Lehigh led Bucknell 7-1 in the second quarter and 11-7 in the fourth before letting the Bison win 12-11. St. John's was tied at 7 with Notre Dame starting the fourth quarter in South Bend. But who's counting, really? You don't get points for almost upsets here. This week:

1. No. 18 Yale (8-2) at Bryant (7-6), 7 p.m. Tuesday
A road game on a Tuesday night in Rhode Island. Might as well flip a coin.

2. No. 11 Villanova (8-3) at St. John's (4-7), 1 p.m. Saturday
An early afternoon road conference matchup for the Wildcats. St. John's hung with Notre Dame into the fourth quarter and will be eager to knock off one of the Big East's big boys. Not sure this note matters, but it's interesting: The Red Storm is 2-2 in conference play and Villanova is 0-2. The Wildcats, of course, have played Syracuse and Notre Dame.

3. No. 3 Cornell (9-2) at Brown (4-7), 3 p.m. Saturday
The Big Red could be feeling heady after knocking off Syracuse and sitting around listening and reading for the last 11 days about how great they are. No game in the Ivy is a walkover.

4. Fairfield (6-6) at Ohio State (7-6), 11 a.m. Saturday
Ohio State is playing in the Horseshoe as part of spring football weekend in Columbus, but the Stags are no homecoming opponent. They won at upstart Hartford a week ago. Both are 2-2 in the ECAC.

5. Navy (4-8) at No. 2 Johns Hopkins (9-2), 8 p.m. Saturday
So you're saying there's a chance? Yes. It's the last game for the Midshipmen this season. They would love to go out with some good memories.

Quote of the Week

"We're growing. We're talking about this team, this year, doing some special things," – Denver coach Bill Tierney, as quoted by The Denver Post.

The Pioneers, as it stands now, are likely to host a first-round playoff game. Beating Duke on Long Island really benefited them. And Denver is already hosting the ECAC tournament, which if it wins, would pretty much guarantee a home postseason game. That should be enough of a reward for Tierney's move from Princeton to Colorado before last season. But with the unpredictability of this season, there could be more to think about. Could Denver make the final four? In just year two of the Tierney experiment? Maybe.

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