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Maryland volleyball weekend preview: No. 25 Illinois and Northwestern

The Terps return home for their final weekend matches of the season.

Photo courtesy of Maryland Athletics

Maryland volleyball concludes its home schedule this weekend with matches against No. 25 Illinois on Friday and Northwestern on Sunday.

The Terps ended their five-match losing streak last weekend with a thrilling five-set win over Indiana. Coming into its final four matches of the season, Maryland needs to win out to equal its conference win total from last season.

The Fighting Illini present one of the last chances for the Terps to defeat a ranked team, something they haven’t accomplished this season.

Head coach Adam Hughes described Monday’s practice as the “best practice of the season,” so that could play a big role in whether Maryland will be upset-minded Friday night.

No. 25 Illinois (13-12, 8-8 Big Ten) — Friday, 8 p.m.

The Fighting Illini, while their record doesn’t show it, have four wins against top-25 teams this season and four five-set losses against ranked opposition.

Illinois is eighth in the conference, hitting .230 as a team, while allowing the fourth-worst opponent hitting percentage in the Big Ten at .207.

The Fighting Illini hover around the middle of the conference in most other statistical categories except for two: blocking and service aces. Illinois is the fourth-worst blocking team in the conference, averaging 2.09 blocks per set, but the third-best serving team, averaging 1.52 service aces per set.

If it wasn’t for a select few players, the Illini would be struggling overall, and this is Maryland’s best opportunity to knock off a ranked opponent this season with just a matchup with No. 6 Nebraska left after this match.

Players to watch

Jacqueline Quade, senior outside hitter, No. 7. Quade is he Big Ten’s leading attacker, recording 405 kills so far this season and 4.13 kills per set. While hitting just .207, Quade will be very aggressive with her shot selection, something Maryland should keep a keen eye out for.

Ashlyn Fleming, senior middle blocker, No. 12. Fleming is among the best hitters in the conference, hitting .338 with 236 kills. She also excels at the net, leading the Fighting Illini with 95 total blocks this season, including four against Rutgers last Saturday in a straight-set win.

Diana Brown, redshirt freshman setter, No. 5. Brown has been the glue of Illinois’s offense, currently averaging 10.83 assists per set and totaling 1,061 total assists this season. Illinois’ success rests on her accuracy, so if she falters, the Fighting Illini attack will go with it.

Northwestern (11-17, 2-14 Big Ten) - Sunday, 1 p.m.

The Wildcats took the Terps to five sets in Evanston on Oct. 23, but came up short late. While Northwestern isn’t anywhere close to the top of the Big Ten — both record and statistics-wise — the Wildcats have been in their best run of form in conference play.

Northwestern is 2-6 in its last eight matches, but four of those losses came in five sets, so a 2-6 record easily could’ve been 6-2 if sets played out differently.

Coming in hitting .217 as a team, Northwestern ranks in the bottom half of all major statistical categories in the Big Ten. And after a major momentum swing for Maryland on Saturday, this match could end quickly if the Terps come out swinging early and often.

Players to watch

Temi Thomas-Ailara, freshman outside hitter, No. 12. The Wildcats are still a threat on the attack thanks to Thomas-Ailara, who is second in the Big Ten, averaging 4.02 kills per set. Her 342 kills lead the team, and Maryland’s energy will be focused on stopping her on Sunday.

Alana Walker, junior middle hitter, No. 20. Walker, who’s third on the team with 202 kills, is Northwestern’s most versatile player, as she’s arguably a better defensive presence. Her 95 total blocks lead the team, 34 more than the next person, and her .244 hitting percentage is nothing to overlook either.

Nia Robinson, junior outside hitter, No. 18. Robinson has also been a good two-way player for Northwestern, recording 300 kills and 3.23 kills per set so far this season. She’s also seventh on the team with 83 digs and 24 total blocks, showing her court versatility.

Three things to watch

1. How will Maryland feed off the home atmosphere? The last home matches of the season also means senior day and plenty of emotions flowing from the coaching staff and players. If Maryland can play off of that, they have a good chance to go 2-0 this weekend.

2. Will that first ranked win come this weekend? Maryland is 0-7 against top-25 opposition, all coming in conference play. The Terps have taken just two sets in these matches. Illinois presents itself as the best upset chance of the season, but will Maryland be prepared?

3. What rotation will Hughes have Maryland in? Last week, the Terps returned to the 5-1 formation that became standard in 2018 after going with a 6-2 rotation for the large majority of this season. It’s unknown what he will implement, but don't be surprised if the 5-1 makes another appearance this season.