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Maryland volleyball’s comeback falls short, closing season with a 3-2 loss to Northwestern

The Terps lost the first two sets, but battled back to force a fifth set before falling at the end.

Photo courtesy of Maryland Athletics

With the match on the line, Maryland star Erika Pritchard wound up a serve. The ball went over the net and was received by the Wildcats, but a quick turn and fake set by Northwestern setter Alex Rousseau caught the Terps off-guard and was the final straw.

The Terps were down 2-0 in their final match of the season before finding new life in sets three and four, pushing the match to a decisive fifth set.

Although the Maryland led for most of the final set, timely scoring by the Wildcats resulted in a 7-2 run to win the match for the road team, with Rousseau’s kill closing the chapter on the Terps’ season, 3-2 (20-25, 19-25, 25-13, 25-22, 13-15).

“Disappointed obviously not being able to get the result we wanted for the seniors, but I’m not disappointed in the team’s fight,” head coach Adam Hughes said. “We put ourselves in a tough spot down 2-0, but they changed their mindset to give ourselves a window. I think we have a lot of things to be thankful for for finishing up the season with COVID and all.”

It was senior day for the Terps at the Xfinity Center Pavilion, as outside hitter Erika Pritchard, libero Sam Burgio, setter Nicole Alford, outside hitter Hailey Rubino and setter Chloe Prejean partook in their last game action at the collegiate level.

Fittingly, the first earned points by the Terps was via serves by a senior. After a service error by Northwestern kicked off the match, Burgio responded with two successful aces to put the Terps out in front with a 3-1 lead.

More errors by the Wildcats extended Maryland’s lead, but for the mistakes Northwestern made early, they made up for it on the attack, driving home five such scores to tie things up at seven.

After falling behind for a bit, Maryland’s offense began to pick it up. Middle blockers Cara Lewis and Laila Ricks padded their weekend stats with back-to-back ferocious kills, but a slight deficit persisted as the set continued.

Lewis and Ricks combined for two consecutive blocks to make it just a three-point deficit, but the Wildcats were able to pull away thanks to a .211 hit percentage disparity (.237 for Northwestern, .026 for Maryland), winning the set 25-20.

Sam Burgio’s 11 digs weren’t enough for Maryland’s inspired efforts out of the gate, and set two began with an added chip on the shoulders of the Terps.

Lewis and middle blocker Rainelle Jones kept Maryland in reach early on in set number two, but Northwestern continued to take advantage of the Terps’ offensive inconsistencies, grabbing a four-point lead heading into a timeout for the home team.

A 5-0 run by the Wildcats continued on and stifled any momentum the Terps had hoped to regain out the timeout. Outside hitter Temi Thomas-Ailara took a backseat to fellow outside hitter Abryanna Cannon, as the redshirt sophomore compiled 11 kills in the opening two sets — finishing with 21 on the day.

Prejean saw some action late in the set — her first since Feb. 5 against Nebraska — forcing an attacking error off of the serve. But the Wildcats kept on chugging along to take the second set, 25-19.

On its last leg, Maryland fought hard to start off the third, with four different players supplying a kill. A 7-0 run was executed via a pair of kills from Pritchard and two aces by Alford, as the Terps looked to keep its season alive.

The story here was Maryland’s offense as it came to life with its backs against the wall. A .385 hitting percentage was spearheaded by Pritchard’s five kills and a plethora of additional contributors, leading to a 25-13 dismantling of the Wildcats to force a fourth set.

The mixed bag of attackers showed out in the opening moments of the fourth, with five different Maryland players scoring to make it a 6-6 game.

Maryland keyed in on another big run to gain some spacing, with setter Sydney Dowler capping off a 5-0 run on the team’s eighth ace of the match.

Ricks extended the run to six before Northwestern put an end to the scoring run. But the freshman continued to torment the opposition, contributing on four straight Maryland scores (two blocks and two kills) to force the Wildcats to spend another timeout.

The momentum was seemingly shifting as the Terrapins weren’t going to let their final game together go down without a fight. But as quickly as the Terps took control, Northwestern responded with their own run, mounting a 7-1 run to make it a game.

Another extended run was the answer Maryland needed, as just like that the match entered a decisive fifth set for the second time this weekend after the Terrapins had fallen behind 2-0.

Rattling off two straight sets to push it to a winner-take-all finish, the Terps entered the fray determined to win for its seniors.

“I told them ‘we’re gonna find a way and it’s gonna be a crazy win in five,’” Hughes said. “I heard a couple of the youngsters say, ‘let’s get this for the seniors,’ and that’s what I’m looking for. I want that to be a part of the culture.”

Jones was the catalyst in the opening exchanges, with the junior converting on a solo block before finishing off two consecutive kills to take a 4-2 lead. Rubino then added to the comeback effort, scoring her first kill of the season via a back row attack.

As Northwestern battled back to tie the set at seven, a kill from outside hitter Sam Csire gave Maryland a bit of a cushion as the set approached its end.

The Terps failed to break away from the Wildcats after Csire’s kill, however, as they found themselves trailing 13-12 with just two points separating Northwestern and victory.

The Wildcats used a 4-0 run at the tail-end of the fifth set to stave off the tremendous come-from-behind effort by the Terps. Maryland’s comeback efforts fell short, but the never-say-die mantra from the Terrapins reigned supreme despite the defeat.

Three things to know

1. Hughes and his squad proved their toughness. All season long Maryland has faced its fair share of struggles. From a COVID-stoppage, to a multitude of tightly contests sets, the Terps have battled down the stretch a lot this season. That ability to hang around was more than evident in Saturday’s season finale.

The Terrapins looked absolutely finished after falling behind 2-0. It was a whole different story from that point onward, as Maryland kicked it up a notch in their final game of the season. A dominating third set was held together by a .385 hitting percentage, while a gritty fourth set was won off the backs of a crucial 6-0 run in the middle of the set.

“I think especially in the first set we were a little emotional and I think our emotions got the best of us,” Burgio said. “It really comes down to communication and going back to those relationships that we built, and trusting each other, and we were able to do that.”

2. Maryland’s seniors say goodbye. The Terrapins turned to a new chapter in its volleyball program tonight, as the Maryland community said farewell to some of its top performers. Pritchard, the school’s second all-time leader in kills finished off her career with 18 kills in the loss, while Burgio tied a season-high with 26 digs in a valiant effort. Alford and Prejean supplied solid minutes at the setter spot, with Alford compiling a team-high 22 assists. Finally, Rubino record her first kill of the season to go along with her five digs and one service ace.

“It’s more just disbelief than anything,” Burgio said. “We’ve been through so much together and being able to just persevere through everything and having each other’s back along the way and being able to cheer each other up when we’ve had those bad days.”

3. Northwestern was constantly a leg up. It felt like each time the Terps looked to ride the momentum from its seniors and the raucous home crowd, Northwestern had a response. Despite the poor offensive numbers, Maryland kept toe-to-toe with the Wildcats. Northwestern was more timely in all facets of the game. Errors were corrected at the right time, blocks were executed to stop Maryland runs and right when Maryland seemed to finally get back into the match, the road team had the answer down the stretch.