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Maryland volleyball starts strong, but falters against Illinois, 3-1

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The Terps took the first set, but couldn’t get much going after that.

Photo courtesy of Maryland Athletics

Down 24-18 in the third set, Maryland volleyball starting libero Sam Burgio stepped up to the server’s box in hopes of holding off Illinois’ match point. As she tossed the ball in the air and extended for the serve, the line judge called a fault on the senior.

With her foot on the server’s line, the Terps had gifted the Illini a crucial third set victory.

It was a decisive third set with the match split 1-1 and a multitude of ties defining the early portion. But the Terps then committed five errors as they gave up a 7-0 run, allowing the Fighting Illini the separation it needed to run away with the set.

Maryland was burdened by its own mistakes throughout the night, leading to a disappointing 3-1 (25-22, 17-25, 18-25, 22-25) loss.

“At times we were trying to be a little bit too crafty or trying to be too aggressive in certain situations, rather than just trusting the defense and being more comfortable,” head coach Adam Hughes said. “Errors was definitely the name of the game tonight.”

Since joining the Big Ten in 2014, Maryland has not beaten the Fighting Illini in nine total meetings. The Terps, coming off a series sweep against Iowa, looked to ride the momentum of its three-game win streak and turn the corner against Illinois.

It was a quick start for the Terps, with outside hitter Erika Pritchard once again getting the opening look for the Maryland offense. Two attacking errors from the Illini and a second kill by Pritchard soon gave Maryland the early 4-1 advantage.

With the momentum shifting, the Terps looked to defensive specialist Lexy Finnerty to help set up the rotations on the serve. The sophomore delivered, inducing two attacking errors by the Illini before delivering an ace to give Maryland a slight, 9-7 lead.

The trading of runs continued. Illinois battled back with a 3-0 spurt before Maryland responded with a 4-0 run of their own — which was made up entirely of attacking errors by the Illini.

Maryland continued to profit off of Illinois’ mistakes, making it 10 straight points scored off of errors to take a 19-15 lead. Hoping to address the flurry of mistakes by his squad, Illinois coach Chris Tamas called his first timeout.

Middle blocker Rainelle Jones finally broke the offensive drought by the Terps, but Illinois’s offense came alive with it, piecing together three kills and the team’s first service ace to force Maryland into a timeout of their own.

The Big Ten’s leader in service aces came back with a second consecutive ace by the freshman Terry, but outside hitter Sam Csire provided a much-needed break in the momentum from the Illini with a back corner attack to extend the lead to two.

Maryland finally began to control its own destiny in the final stretch of the set, knocking in three straight kills (two from Pritchard, one from Csire) to put away the Illini, 25-22.

Illinois got off to the hot start this time around in the second set, using a 5-0 run to take a 8-3 lead over the Terps. Following a timeout called by Hughes, the Terrapins continued to struggle in the second set, letting two service aces drop to fall behind 10-3.

Whenever Maryland would score, Illinois would tack on two more. Maryland found themselves down 11 at one point, a sign of just how lopsided this set was following a neck and neck first.

Maryland looked to salvage the set with a 4-0 run, but it was too little too late as the Illini secured a dominant second set victory, 25-17.

“Their serving pressure went up and our serving errors went up,” Burgio said. “We got a little tentative and and we should have focused more on getting back into it and not letting them go on long runs.”

Through two sets, Maryland shot just .086, a far cry from its impressive offensive showing a week ago. The team’s 17 kills matched the attacking error total by the Illini, setting up a pivotal third set in Champaign, Illinois.

Like clockwork, Pritchard got things started for the offense, collecting just her sixth kill on the night, but a crucial one to set the tone in a bounce back set.

From there, the two foes exchanged blows, with the Terps holding the advantage by alternating between ties and one-point leads. At the halfway point with Illinois up 12-11, the third set had seen seven ties.

What made the difference was Illinois at the server’s block, capitalizing on a seventh service ace to take a 16-13 lead after playing catch-up with the Terps all set.

Looking to halt a 4-0 run, a Maryland timeout gave just what the doctor ordered. Middle blocker Jada Gardner and Csire chipped in a kill each before two attacking errors brought the set to familiar territory — a tie at 17.

Illinois wasted no time getting those points back and then more, sprinting to the finish line by virtue of a 7-0 run.

Maryland’s offense continued to falter into the fourth set, finding themselves down 4-9 with just two kills to their name. A little rejuvenation was found in the middle of the set, with middle blocker Laila Ricks and Pritchard trying to keep the Terps afloat.

Another huge run by the Illini looked to bury Maryland’s comeback efforts, but the Terps finally found some life in the blocking department, executing three straight to cut the fourth set score to 23-19 in favor of the Illini.

It was too little too late once again for the Terps, as the comeback efforts fell short as the red hot Terps couldn’t continue their good fortunes against Illinois.

Three things to know

1. Illinois’ strength showed while Maryland’s did not. Although it has been Maryland’s offense of late that has been the difference-maker in its recent win streak, the team’s identity all season has been their ability in blocking at the net. On Friday, 7.5 blocks in the fourth set salvaged Maryland’s numbers, but over the course of the match that element of their game was lacking as the collective front tallied just seven blocks across the three previous sets.

On the other hand, Illinois dominated on the serve, a category it leads the Big Ten in. The Illini collected 12 such scores compared to Maryland’s four. It was lopsided in this department, whereas Illinois had seven blocks to at least stay within near half of Maryland’s total. While Illinois flexed its prowess in the category that defines their squad, the Terps did not.

2. No Megan Cooney for the home team. The Big Ten’s ninth ranked player in kills per set was absent from Friday’s matchup, setting the home team back against a solid Maryland defense. While the offense struggled to the tune of a .105 hitting percentage, a wrench was thrown into Maryland’s scouting report due to the absence.

“It was definitely a surprise,” Jones said. “We don’t really know much about the new players, but we definitely had to learn on the fly.”

Sophomore outside hitter Bruna Vrankovic led the way for Illinois, while Terry chipped in a solid total of 13 in place of the absent Cooney.

3. After a strong streak of hitting, the Terps suffered a drop-off. Maryland set season-high hitting marks in the last three matches, including a monster .349 effort last time out against Iowa. Not only was Friday’s effort against the grain of the Terps’ recent effort, but .059 marked the lowest hitting percentage of the season by far. Maryland started the season with struggles in this area, hitting .144, .182 and a previous low of .133 to start the year.

“They were just getting better touches in transition and getting better quality swings,” Hughes said. “We were constantly high balled out of system ... that’s probably the most out of system we’ve been all season.”