It's not that top-ranked Maryland hadn't played well enough to win in recent days. For a team intent on bringing another national title back to College Park, however, uneven performances against Hofstra and UMBC left much to be desired.
For the Terrapins, Saturday's game against No. 9 Penn State presented the ideal opportunity to make a statement.
"We felt like we had something to prove today," senior Alex Aust said. "We really wanted to come out and play better than we played last week."
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Host Maryland did just that, scoring eight of the first nine goals, then holding the Nittany Lions scoreless for nearly 20 minutes in the second half of 20-10 win. The victory gives the Terps (7-0) an added boost of confidence heading into a stretch in which they'll play four of five on the road.
"The last two games it was a little struggle for us, both offensively and defensively," said defender Iliana Sanza (St. Paul's). "We know we can't treat every team like that. Coming out today, we had some fire under us, and that showed."
Aust, who entered the day with the most points of any Division I player, finished with four goals and four assists, and early in the second half she became the eighth player in program history to reach 100 career assists. She has 38 points in the past four games and 51 for the season.
Together with South River product Brooke Griffin (four goals, two assists) and McDonogh alum Taylor Cummings (two goals, three assists), Aust helped the Terps build a commanding 8-1 lead after the first 15:21.
The bulk of the damage came on fast breaks, where Maryland time and again whipped the ball around to find easy shots. All told, the Terps converted on 20 of their 27 shots, including eight of nine in the second half.
But it was on defense were they truly shined.
"We were communicating, we were sliding well, we were doubling when we needed to and trying to make Penn State's looking a little more difficult," Maryland coach Cathy Reese said. "I thought our defense definitely played better than we had been. We're going in the right direction with it, and that's what we wanted to see."
Despite winning the majority of draw controls, Penn State (4-2) struggled to its lowest point total this season. And after the Nittany Lions exploded for four straight goals early in the second half to cut the deficit to five, Maryland emerged from a timeout and scored seven straight of its own, holding Penn State scoreless for 19:55.
"I think our team kept competing hard the whole game. We just couldn't finish our shots," said Penn State coach Missy Doherty, a 1997 graduate of Maryland who helped the Terps to three NCAA titles. "Draw controls was a huge focus for us to have more possessions, and we were able to do that. But scoring and shooting was a big factor today."
For Maryland, the all-around performance was encouraging, particularly against a Penn State team that last weekend knocked off then-No. 6 Virginia in Charlottesville.
"From the opening draw we came out hard and competed," Reese said. "We were playing great defense from the opening whistle, which kind of propelled us into our offense."