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Maryland volleyball battles No. 4 Nebraska, falls 3-1

The Terps picked up their first set win against Nebraska since 2015.

Photo from @Huskervball

After trading scores late in the second set, Maryland volleyball found itself in striking distance with the score at 24-22 in favor of the Cornhuskers. But like Superman emerging from his phone booth, Erika Pritchard emerged from a Maryland timeout with a fierce kill down the line into the pocket of freshman Keonilei Akana, followed by a service ace to tie the set.

Rebekah Rath then got into the action with a kill that grazed off the fingertips of Nebraska’s wall to tie the match. The Terps benefitted off late mistakes from their opponent as two attacking errors sailed out of play to give Maryland the hard fought set victory, their first first set off of Nebraska since 2015.

Maryland showed a competitive effort throughout the match, but it wasn’t enough to take down the No. 4 team in the country, with the Terrapins losing in four sets Friday (19-25, 27-25, 19-25, 14-25).

“Obviously at times we were pretty competitive tonight and more so than anything I thought it was good to be able to execute when we had a battle,” head coach Adam Hughes said. “That’s what we need for the program to take a step forward is to put ourselves in those opportunities and then try and find ways to close.”

The Cornhuskers got it going early with an easy tap over the net from Lexi Sun into open space on the Maryland side. Nebraska followed up the quick score with a solo block from Kayla Caffey on a Rainelle Jones spike attempt, establishing the team’s dominance early.

Out of the first media timeout, Maryland started to tighten things up a bit despite Nebraska’s tremendous efforts on return balls, a common theme from the Huskers throughout the night.

Cara Lewis, who has become one of Hughes’s newest tools to use on the frontline, read a Sun attack to the tee, coming up with the solo block to cut the Terps deficit to five.

Another composed response from the Huskers prevented the Terrapins from climbing too close to set advantage, but down 22-13, Rebekah Rath gave her team an opportunity for a momentum shift.

A swing and kill by Rath went off the top of the big block attempted by the Cornhuskers, which was followed up by a service ace from the sophomore that rolled over the net.

Despite this spurt, Nebraska remained composed and avoided too many errors to finish off the Terps by the tune of 25-19. Set point came off of a kill by Stivrins that ricocheted off Maryland’s block attempt.

The second set started with the same unreal court awareness from Nebraska, with both Caffey and Knuckles making some talented volleys, but it was an attacking error from Sun that rewarded Maryland the first point of the set.

Maryland continued to impress in the second set, responding to Nebraska’s tricks with a more balanced defensive rotation. After a challenge by Hughes went in the direction of the Cornhuskers, his squad began to piece together some quality play.

Back-to-back kills from Caffey to make it 10-7 Nebraska seemed to turn the tides of the set in the direction of the No. 4 team in the country, but Maryland responded with a 5-2 run to knot up the set at 12.

Nicole Alford shined for the Terps in the second set with seven assists, two kills, a block and a service error. She helped cap off a three score run for the Terrapins with a service ace to put Maryland ahead late in the set. A great block from Jones against Caffey extended Maryland’s lead to two, which forced Nebraska to call a timeout and regroup.

Much like in the first set, Nebraska’s huddle found a way to switch the momentum back to their side. A 4-0 scoring run aided by two kills from Madi Kubik sent Maryland back down to Earth, but the Terps continued to fight, eventually taking the set victory behind Pritchard’s effort.

“It goes back to being steady and consistent, and not getting too riled up,” Pritchard said. “I just wanted to keep doing what I have been training to do and help the team in any way.”

Jada Gardner advanced the Maryland momentum with a kill and subsequent block to singlehandedly tie the third set at four. A thunderous kill by Caffey seemed destined to shift the upper hand in favor of the Huskers, however both teams proceeded to go back and forth as the set carried on.

The highlight reel plays slowed down a bit and exemplary team volleyball took over. Both Maryland and Nebraska displayed true Big Ten competition and put on an exciting show as the set dwindled down to its final few points.

At 15-14 Nebraska, and no team gaining the clear advantage, Stivrins connected on another successful kill, with Sam Burgio’s dig attempt soaring into the stands. This prompted a 6-0 run for Nebraska, the biggest of the night.

“If you want to play at a really high level, it really does come down to making one or two plays at key times and not giving up four or five point runs” Hughes said. “I don’t think that’s an Achilles heel for us, I just think that’s the next step in our evolution.”

The run ignited by Stivrins created too much of a deficit for the Terps to handle, as Caffey converted her sixth kill of the night to wrap up a crucial third set for the Cornhuskers.

The rest of the Cornhuskers began to piece together their offensive attack in the fourth set, as Kubik (2) and Riley Zuhn (3) had five kills in the early going.

From there, Maryland tried to hang around, but a 9-2 run from the Cornhuskers proved too much to overcome. Kubik, the 2019 Big Ten Freshman of the Year, wrapped up the final set with a strike down the line that grazed the fingertips of Alford and Lewis to drop Maryland to 0-5 on the year.

Regarding his team’s effort this season thus far, Hughes said: “That might be thing that I’m most proud about. We still have a long way to go with this season, but I don’t think anyone’s had a tougher schedule than us to start.”

Three things to know

1. Nebraska was Nebraska. There existed a glimmer of hope that Nebraska — after not playing since Jan. 25 because of COVID-19 protocol issues with Northwestern — would be a bit rusty out of the gate against Maryland. There were times where that rust may have sneaked its way onto the court, especially in the second set as the Cornhuskers were outplayed down the stretch. But that sluggish play was short-lived and the expected dominance from the Huskers elevated the team to another victory.

The team brought back every starter from the previous year and it showed down the stretch despite Nebraska not necessarily dictating the stat line. Nebraska’s outside hitters were able to snap and slam their kills much better than Maryland’s, most notably Lauren Stivrins, whose spikes into the Terrapin side echoed throughout the Bob Devaney Sports Center.

2. Serve and receive was good, but not perfect. After an error filled first set, Maryland began to adjust well to Nebraska’s attack. They capitalized on a few mistakes from the Huskers and imposed their will at times when Nebraska seemed like they were just a tad off. But when the dominant defensive rotations from Nebraska were activated, it left Maryland with little to show for, especially late in the crucial third set following Maryland’s second set upset.

Maryland comes in dead last in the Big Ten in opponents service aces, giving up an average of 2.69 per set. Coach Hughes felt his team responded better to Nebraska’s serves after giving up seven Friday, but there is still plenty of room for improvement.

3. Maryland came ready to play. Maryland struggled mightily in the first set because of far too many errors and serving issues, but they began to come alive in the second set and thereafter. Maryland’s second set victory over Nebraska was the team’s first since Nov. 14, 2015 and set the tone for the team’s performance down the stretch.

“Even if we’re down we know we can get ourselves back into it,” Gardner said. “If we make a mistake, it’s in the past and we move on.”

Although they came up short, winning a set against No. 4 Nebraska and following up that victory with a wire to wire third set shows just how persistent this year’s team can be when they begin to form some momentum.