With Atlantic 10 Offensive Player of the Year Katie Ferris sidelined for a majority of the day due to illness, Sam Rush took charge in Sunday’s Atlantic 10 women’s lacrosse championship game.
With the game still close, and UMass leading by just three early in the second half, the junior attack called for the ball from teammate Courtney McGrath and deposited a goal into the lower left corner of the cage past Duquesne goalkeeper Kristen Gregory.
The goal gave the Minutewomen a commanding 8-4 advantage, but Rush was just getting started. She went on to score three more times in a row to put the game out of reach, and her career high seven points, including six goals, led UMass to its record fifth straight conference championship with a convincing 14-7 victory over the Dukes at McGuirk Stadium.
“The season was on the line, the championship was on the line and we came to play,” said Rush, who was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. “I was just happy I could step up. I wanted to win the game and if that involved me scoring goals, then so be it. It was really more about the win.”
With the win, the Minutewomen (17-2) claim an automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament, but won’t find out when or who they are playing for another week when the selection show takes place next Sunday.
Following a postgame ceremony in which the Minutewomen were awarded the A-10 championship trophy, senior Cori Murray, who finished with four goals and two assists on Sunday to cap off her A-10 career with a perfect conference tournament record, said that she believes a distinct unity brought her team success.
“We all have faith in each other, we have faith in our team,” Murray said. “Coming in strong to the second half, we knew we could beat this team and if we came together and played UMass lacrosse, the lacrosse we play every day at practice, we knew we could come out successful.”
UMass coach Angela McMahon said that aside from unity, determination is the definition of a five-time A-10 champion.
“I think it’s a lot of pride in your program,” McMahon said. “Every team is different every single year, but with that comes the responsibility that you know that those are the expectations. You have to make sure that you’re constantly improving, from the beginning of January, working up until now to make sure that come tournament time, you’re ready to play.”
The Minutewomen traded scores with Duquesne (11-7) to open the game as Murray and sophomore midfielder Clare Hurley registered two goals, while Dukes midfielders Meredith Dunn and Amanda Kidder put their team ahead 4-2 with 16:08 left in the first half.
Rush, who set a single-season UMass record for goals with 60 in the game, scored her 100th career tally two minutes later to bring the Minutewomen within one, kicking off a three-goal run, capped off with goals from senior attack Lauren Terracciano and Murray, to give the Minutewomen a 5-4 lead at the half.
Just as she did in the conference tournament semifinals against George Washington, McMahon delivered a pep talk to her squad at the midway point of the game. Only this time, she was fighting to speak after losing her voice following Friday’s matchup.
With assistant coach Whitney Michele echoing her words to the team, McMahon said that she saw a spike in her group’s physical and emotional intensity.
Junior midfielder Melissa Carelli put that intensity to use as she scored to open a 6-0 run to start the second half that Rush finished with four straight goals, putting her side ahead, 11-4, with 11:42 left in the game.
As UMass tries to ascend itself among the country’s elite, Murray said that she is anxious to see how far her team goes in the tournament.
“We have a really talented team this year,” Murray said. “We lost a lot of really great seniors last year, but this is a new year and we have a lot of great girls, so I think we have the potential to do really well in the NCAAs.”
Peter Cappiello can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @MDC_Cappiello.