NCAA Tournament: After ‘slim chance’ to get in, UMass women’s lacrosse prepared for Princeton

  • Haley Connaughton and the UMass women’s lacrosse team are in the NCAA Tournament and will face Princeton at 7 p.m. Friday in New Jersey. CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS

  • UMass’ Kelly Marra rips a shot on net against Davidson in the Atlantic 10 semifinals. The Minutewomen are in the NCAA Tournament and will face Princeton at 7 p.m. Friday. CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS

Staff Writer
Published: 5/12/2022 6:46:02 PM
Modified: 5/12/2022 6:46:02 PM

The selection committee gave the UMass women’s lacrosse team a chance to stay together.

The Minutewomen considered their season ended when Saint Joseph’s upset them in the Atlantic 10 Championship game at Garber Field two weeks ago. The Atlantic 10 had never received two NCAA Tournament bids since the conference first sponsored women’s lacrosse in the late 1990s.

UMass only practiced twice in the week between the A-10 final and the selection show.

“We were kind of sad. I had accepted it,” UMass senior Kelly Marra said.

They didn’t even watch the selection show together as a team. Some gathered in off campus houses, but the group was separate. 

“Everyone was kind of on their own,” UMass coach Angela McMahon-Serpone said. “We thought there was maybe a chance. Even we thought it was a slim chance.”

Eventually, “UMass” popped on the screen opposite Princeton. The Atlantic 10 became a two-bid league.  The Minutewomen weren’t done yet.

“We lost our minds,” Marra said.

The Minutewomen gathered in a team Zoom room within minutes, their joy beaming through computer screens. It’s their second straight NCAA Tournament berth. The Minutewomen fell against Temple in the first round last year.

UMass (16-3) returned to practice Monday with a renewed vigor. Their technical skills of passing and catching needed some rust removal at the start of practice, but they found a groove.

“Everyone was so happy to be around each other, that we got a second chance,” UMass grad student Haley Connaughton said. “At the end it felt like we never left the field.”

Now the Minutewomen are staring down one of their toughest tests of the season at 7 p.m. Friday. Princeton (14-3) captured the Ivy League title and won its last seven games. The host Tigers also own victories over then-No. 1o Virginia, then-No. 20 Temple and then-No. 17 USC. They’ve gone 4-3 against ranked competition this season.

“They’re a great team with one of the best coaches in the history of the game,” McMahon-Serpone said.

Princeton coach Chris Sailer is a member of the U.S. Lacrosse National Hall of Fame and has led the Tigers for 36 years. She owns degrees from Harvard and UMass in addition to three national championships and 11 appearances in the national semifinals.

“We’re not, ‘it’s happy to be here,’” McMahon-Serpone said. “We’re here to win it.”

UMass prevailed in the teams’ only previous NCAA Tournament meeting, a 13-12 overtime thriller in 2016.

Only McMahon-Serpone and Sailer remain from that matchup, extra years of eligibility can only reach so far. But both teams possess plenty of firepower. UMass possesses the No. 8 offense in the country scoring 16.37 goals per game. Princeton isn’t far behind at No. 17 (15.53 per game).

Senior Kyla Sears drives the Tigers offense. She leads them with 92 points, 63 goals and 29 assists. No one else has more than 43 goals, 11 assists and 52 points. Four Tigers have at least 30 goals and just two have double-digit assists.

UMass, conversely, features seven players with at least 20 goals and five players with double-digit assists, three of whom (Alex Finn, Julia Smith and Connaughton) are tied for the team lead at 20. Kendra Harbinger paces the team with 49 goals, while Marra has scored 45.

“We play super loose and click really well,” Marra said. “It usually flows together.”

The Minutewomen pair that with one of the nation’s best defenses, allowing just 9.42 goals per game (No. 12).

“We know we can hang with them,” Connaughton said.

UMass faced four NCAA Tournament teams this season. The Minutemen took down Vermont, split with Saint Joseph’s and fell to UConn and Boston College.

“Those are the games that prepare us later on in the season and in moments like now,” Connaughton said. “Going into Princeton, it’s not new to us.”

A win would draw either No. 5 Syracuse or Fairfield, who face off before the UMass game at 4 p.m. Either way, the more UMass wins the longer it can stay together.

“Last week I thought I was done with sports and my career is done and I was super emotional,” Connaughton said. “Now to have this opportunity to get back on the field and be with my girls is more than I could ask for. To be able to rep Massachusetts one more time is so important.”

Kyle Grabowski can be reached at kgrabowski@gazettenet.com. Follow him on Twitter @kylegrbwsk.

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