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Maryland volleyball unable to find its spark, falls flat against Michigan State, 3-1

The Terps struggled early to lose their seventh straight.

Photo courtesy of @TerpsVolleyball

After his team fell fell flat in each of its first two sets against Michigan State, Maryland volleyball head coach Adam Hughes made a bold move to switch things up.

There was a somber feeling in the air at the Pavilion at Xfinity Center as the Spartans seemed all but ready to take the third set and the match. Knowing the Terps needed to find some sort of spark during the intermission, Hughes directed his team into the locker room for some soul searching. He told his players that he knew they could play better if they competed together as a team.

Maryland looked reinvigorated back on the floor, battling to capture the third set. However, the shift in energy quickly faded with another stale performance in the fourth as the Terps once again fell short in a 3-1 loss.

“We weren’t firing on all cylinders and for a team that kind of relies on their defense, it was a poor defensive night for us,” Hughes said. “The response is what matters most so we gotta get back to work.”

After losing six games to start the season, the Terps entered Friday night’s match with hopes of earning its first victory against a weaker opponent in the conference.

Prior to the contest, the two winless teams had had their share of issues on the offensive side, with Michigan State being particularly plagued by poor receiving statistics. The Spartans had allowed the highest opponent hit percentage (.267) in the Big Ten and were also 12th in their own hitting percentage (.137).

But that went completely out the window Friday night. The Spartans delivered 58 kills and held Maryland to a .179 hitting percentage, the visiting team’s best defensive mark this season. The Terps also allowed their opponent to have its best attack performance on the season as well, with the Spartans ended with a .301 hitting percentage.

During pregame, after the Spartans finished its first warmup drill, the team let out a collective roar in their huddle, to which the Terps promptly responded with some noise of their own. This set the tone for what would be a stellar showdown between two teams hungry for a win.

It was a difficult start for the Terrapins, as Michigan State embarked on a 5-0 run aided by three attacking errors from Erika Pritchard. Gardner put an end to the hot start from the Spartans with a kill skimming past the fingertips of the Spartan wall.

For the majority of the first set, Maryland struggled to match the intensity of the Spartans. A little spurt from Pritchard via a kill and service ace cut the deficit to three, but a 3-0 run by Michigan State led to Maryland calling its first timeout.

Gardner came out of the timeout with a thunderous kill, but two kills and a block from Spartan freshman Sarah Franklin made the score 15-7, prompting Hughes to give his team another breather.

Out the second timeout, Maryland seemed more energized, but Michigan State’s phenomenal defense staved away any comeback attempts. A pair of light kills over the net gave Michigan State an 18-10 lead, but Maryland wouldn’t go away that easily.

Down 21-16, the Terps ceded a kill from Alyssa Chronowski before Gardner responded with a kill of her own by taking advantage of the Spartans’ broken down rotation. Yet, the Terps just couldn’t put together any major runs to cut into the early deficit, losing the set 25-20.

Much like the first set, Maryland found itself down in an early hole in the second. A 3-0 deficit turned into 8-2 thanks to a multitude of attacking errors by the Terps, forcing coach Hughes to call yet another timeout.

From there, Maryland couldn’t find any rhythm against the Spartans, folding to a rock solid defense from the road team. Nicole Alford was able to meet Gros at the net for a seemingly huge shift to cut the score to 11-6, but Michigan State continued to capitalize on Maryland’s mistakes while also supplying their own source of offense.

The Terps tried to stay within reach, but their uninspiring performance continued, with the team ending losing the set, 25-16. At that point, Maryland had just 18 kills compared to 32 from Michigan State.

The Terps struggled on the attack through the first two sets, with a hitting percentage of .161 in the first, followed by a horrid -0.077 mark in the second. Both are below their prior season average of .172.

But Hughes’ move paid dividends to start the third set. Gardner thundered home two kills into the heart of the Spartans defense, keeping the set within reach in the early going unlike the previous two. A 3-0 run aided by kills from Rath and Gardner gave the Terps its first lead of the night at 7-6.

“Everybody was really fired up,” Sam Burgio said. “We knew we weren’t playing our best and we just wanted to give everything that we had.”

The teams traded ties and leads as the set approached the halfway point, but a quick 4-0 run from Maryland finally gave the home team the jolt of energy it had been searching for all night. Gardner was once again the standout for the Terps during the run as she racked up a service ace and kill in back-to-back points to force Michigan State into a timeout.

“She really kept us in the match,” Hughes said. “I think there’s some defensive plays she probably wants back, but at the same time she really stepped up.”

Maryland’s four-point lead turned into six out of the timeout. There was life back in the Terps, but an unbelievable sequence of back-and-forth’s between both teams didn’t end in their favor, capping off a three point run for the Spartans to cut the Terps lead to four.

That sequence was a catalyst for the Spartans’s comeback efforts, as a 7-4 run pulled Michigan State back into the set, trailing 22-21. But Pritchard was able to respond out of the Maryland timeout, forcing two kills into the otherwise impenetrable Spartan defense.

Right out of a Michigan State challenge, Gardner and Cara Lewis combined for a block on Chronowski to stifle the Spartans comeback efforts and secure a third set victory, 25-21.

Maryland started in the fourth set as Gardner kept the ball rolling with two early kills and a block, but Michigan State began to find that energy from the first two sets, rattling off a 6-2 run to take a 10-7 lead. After the Terps rallied for a .438 hitting percentage in the following set, they sunk back down to .143 in the fourth, proving the third set to only be an outlier on the evening.

A challenge on the match point was Maryland’s last gasp at mounting a comeback, but the call stood as a point for Michigan State, sealing yet another loss.

Three things to know

1. Trailing early and often plagued the Terrapins. Despite a valiant effort early in the third set, the Terps looked lackluster in the first and second. The Spartans jumped out to a pair of 10-4 leads in the first two sets, making it tough for the Terps to dig out of the holes. No matter what Maryland threw at the Spartan defense — which prior to tonight’s game was dead last in the Big Ten in opponent hitting percentage — it was able to counter. With the Terps on their heels for much of the sets, it remained a tall task for them to find any rhythm.

2. Michigan State had Maryland’s offense wrapped around its finger. It was truly an amazing effort from a Michigan State defense that struggled mightily in the early going of the season. Friday saw the Spartans hold Maryland to a .179 hitting percentage, a far cry from the team’s .279 percentage on the year. Gardner had a career-high 20 kills on the night thanks to a .455 attack success rate, but the remaining Terps couldn’t find an efficient enough way to penetrate the rock solid Spartan defense.

“It’s gonna start with our serve and pass in the morning,” Burgio said regarding the team’s adjustments heading into tomorrow’s rematch. “It doesn’t matter how well one person does you’re not going to win a game without the team being all together.”

3. Maddie Naumann got the start over Rebekah Rath. Up to this point in the season, Rath had been second on the team in kills and was building off a tremendous freshman season. But Friday saw Rath on the bench to start the first and second set, with Maddie Naumann in instead. Rath garnered more playing time throughout the match, with Naumann not appearing in the crucial third and fourth sets, but it was interesting to see her riding the pine early, especially given Maryland’s struggles early in the sets.