In a decisive fifth set in Maryland volleyball’s home matchup against Northwestern, the Terrapins became the aggressor out of the gates thanks to its duo of middle blockers.
Middle blockers Laila Ricks and Rainelle Jones revved up their game in the deciding set, producing the Terps’ first five points. A kill from each player was followed by an in-sync block on the next rally,
Finesse turned to ferocity after the joint effort at the net, as Ricks and Jones each punished another pair of kills. Whereas the freshman soared for the zinger, Jones used a low and away attack for the score.
The 5-1 advantage earned by the Jones and Ricks show up front gave the Terps enough of an edge to hold onto a five-point fifth set victory to end its four-game losing streak with a 3-2 win over the Wildcats (16-25, 25-22, 22-25, 25-21, 15-10).
“All gas, no brakes for our [second to] last opportunity to all play together as a team,” middle blocker Cara Lewis said. “I didn’t want to leave this weekend without laying my whole effort on the line.”
The Terps came out a little flat in their gold uniforms, falling behind 4-0 early in set number one. Maryland’s swings started to produce results, with senior outside hitter Erika Pritchard collecting two kills, but the Wildcats kickstarted yet another four score run, grasping an 11-5 lead in the early portion of the match.
Out of a Maryland timeout, Jones converted on the first touch with a scorcher down the middle. The kill woke up Northwestern’s stud outside hitter Temi Thomas-Ailara, however, as the standout sophomore made her mark on the match with a pair of kills.
Continuing to backpedal, the Terps searched for a spark — one that they got from a flurry of Northwestern errors. Once down 14-6, Maryland was able to climb back into the set.
Four service errors from Northwestern kept Maryland hanging around, but Thomas-Ailara’s eight kills were too much for the Terrapins to fend off, dropping the first set 25-16.
A quick ace from Hailey Rubino started things off right for the Terps in the second set, with Pritchard and Lewis providing the offense with a kill each.
Once again a service error hindered Northwestern’s momentum, and the Terrapin block party came out to play thereafter. Lewis combined with middle blocker Laila Ricks and outside hitter Sam Csire for back-to-back blocks, forcing the Wildcats to take a timeout.
After an intervene to determine if an attack via Csire had grazed the fingers of Northwestern’s block attempt or not, the Wildcats secured its second straight point in hopes of building a small comeback.
The long layoff didn’t hold back the freshman from making an immediate impact, however, as she responded with a first touch spike into the back right corner to make it 12-10.
Maryland maintained a lead as the set prolonged, but Northwestern kept poking around as they stayed within striking distance. Suddenly tied at 17, a kill and block from Jones helped stave off the Wildcats for the time being, but the road team kept on chipping away.
Lewis was the difference-maker for Maryland down the stretch, erupting for a solo block and kill on back-to-back scores for the Terps, helping take a 21-19 lead and eventually the set.
With the match tied at a set apiece, Maryland found themselves in familiar territory.
This season, Maryland has entered the third set tied 11 times. Of those 11 times, they have won just three of those sets (two of which led to match victories), including four straight loses in such scenarios over the past four games against Illinois and Rutgers.
A huge third set was in order yet again in College Park, and the Terps looked to reverse their fortunes this time around.
A 4-1 start was defined by more mistakes from the Wildcats, but Maryland allowed another comeback from its opponent, as Northwestern embarked on a massive eight-score run fueled by four aces via outside hitter Abryanna Cannon.
Now trailing by six, Maryland needed to do some soul-searching to help scrounge up some points after faltering in the middle portion of the set. Csire broke the Wildcat run with a pair of kills, but Thomas-Ailara continued to pummel the Terrapins with 17 kills of her own.
An ace and kill combo from Pritchard pulled the Terps within one, and as Northwestern reached the 20-point mark, so did Maryland thanks to a block from Lewis and the returning Jada Gardner.
Northwestern capitalized out of its timeout, turning a 5-1 run into a 25-22 victory in the crucial third set. As quickly as the Terps made it a game, the Wildcats buckled down and took control of Maryland’s errors, taking a 2-1 lead on the road.
The fourth set was much of the same early for Northwestern, with two separate 3-0 runs pulling the away team ahead 8-4 thanks to its serving prowess.
Maryland seemed dead in the water before they began to take advantage of Northwestern’s miscues en route to a 7-1 run to gain the lead. Five errors by the Wildcats sparked the run by the Terps, making it 12-10 in favor of the home team.
The teams traded scores down the stretch, with Maryland holding the slight advantage in the exchange. Errors were a major player in the fourth, with Maryland capitalizing on Northwestern’s mistakes to force a decisive fifth set.
“It’s the end of the road for the seniors and I think they were able to rally us a little bit more just with positive energy,” head coach Adam Hughes said. “I talked to Sam Burgio and said ‘this can be a deflating loss. It’s your goal and your job to try and get as much energy back into it as possible.’”
That pep talk led to Maryland coming out as the aggressor to start the deciding fifth set, with Ricks and Jones each supplying offense for the Terrapins. The duo followed up a timeout by the Wildcats with a block to push the lead to three.
The Rainelle and Laila show continued as a zinger by Ricks was followed up by another kill by the junior Jones, pushing the Terps out to a 6-2 lead.
Maryland wouldn’t look back from that early lead in the final set, coasting to a 15-10 match-clinching victory.
“We just stayed steady,” Pritchard said. “We kept the same energy going through the fifth set and we just kept doing what we have been doing to keep that momentum going forward.”
Three things to know
1. Northwestern lived and died by the serve. The crucial third set in tonight’s matchup was ultimately won on the serve for Northwestern, as they compiled five aces in the set. That added to an overall total of 13, as the Wildcats took extra advantage of the Big Ten’s worst defense against the serve.
Although the Wildcats were on top of their game behind the service line, they also ceded a ton of errors, committing 12 such errors to allow Maryland to hang around during extended runs.
2. Temi Thomas-Ailara was held in check down the stretch. Hughes mentioned in his pregame press conference this week to beware of No. 12 in purple. That omen came to fruition today, as Northwestern’s most potent weapon had a clinic against the Maryland defense. The Big Ten’s third best in kills per set, Thomas-Ailara maintained her 4.03 average, compiling 20 kills over five sets.
Defensive adjustments reigned supreme for the Terps, however, as what seemed to be another cakewalk for the sophomore ended with her on the bench for a majority of the decisive set. After starting with 17 kills in the first three sets, Maryland was able to keep the threat in check, resulting in a comeback victory.
“You’re gonna get a couple of these, but you can’t have the rest of them,” Hughes said about the mindset his team adapted down the stretch.
3. Blocks were the calling card yet again. The Big Ten’s top blocking team was at it again on Friday, as the Terps tallied 19 total blocks, producing a +14 margin against the Wildcats. While Northwestern had it going for them behind the service line, Maryland made its efforts be known at the net, denying several Wildcat attacks with a coordinated approach. This was Maryland’s second five-set victory of the season and a big reason for that change of fortune was a direct result of the blocking prowess exhibited by the Terrapins.
“We did better getting them off the center so that the setter wasn’t setting at the net as much,” Hughes said. “That slows down the tempo of the set just a little bit, which gives our middles more time to stay in the read and get comfortable [for the block].”