After a Paula Neciporuka putaway gave Maryland volleyball its third match point deep in the fifth set, the Terps were on the brink of breaking their three-game slump against Northwestern.
On the subsequent point, Sydney Dowler lobbed a set in Neciporuka’s direction, only for the spike to miss just wide following an extensive replay review.
And with the pivotal fifth frame knotted at 15, the Wildcats stood tall to close out the contest.
A stifling block assist on the next point gave Northwestern its first match point of the evening, and as star outside hitter Temi Thomas-Ailara punched her 16th kill past Maryland’s defense, the Wildcats’ bench stormed the court as the Terps slowly walked off in a 3-2 defeat.
“Obviously disappointed in how we finished, had a lead and didn’t execute down the stretch, [made] some errors and gave a win away,” coach Adam Hughes said following the Terps’ fourth straight loss.
With both squads looking to bounce back from recent conference defeats, the Terps and Wildcats traded blows early in the opening frame.
Thomas-Ailara got the ball rolling for Northwestern, punching home a punishing putaway on the opening point to give the Wildcats an early groove on offense. It was the first of five first-set kills for Thomas-Ailara, who gave Maryland headaches from the onset.
“She’s a really good player that hits really hard,” middle blocker Hannah Thompson said of Thomas-Ailara.
The Terps quickly answered, opening up a four point advantage midway through the frame by way of two service aces to force Northwestern coach Shane Davis into burning a timeout.
But Davis’ timeout proved to be exactly what the Wildcats needed to turn the tides of the first set.
Following the break, Northwestern rattled off seven straight points, flipping the set on its head as Maryland’s early rhythm was stifled. A bevy of attack errors plagued the Terps’ offense late, as the Wildcats rolled to a 25-23 first set victory.
Northwestern’s win was the first opening set defeat Maryland had suffered at home this season. However, despite being in unfamiliar territory, Hughes’ squad quickly found their footing in the subsequent frame.
After an uncharacteristically inefficient .069 hitting percentage in the first set, outside hitter Sam Csire and the Terps found their offensive tempo. Csire, who registered just one kill in the first set, exploded for eight second-set putaways to lead Maryland’s offensive charge.
“I really respected how fast [Csire] bounced back after the first set,” Hughes said. “I know she was a little frustrated and trying to be too fine with some of her shot selections. And then the second set, eight kills is really the reason why we got jump started, and I thought she did a good job there.”
And while the Terps’ offense showed signs of life in the second set, it was Maryland’s defense that dazzled.
Thomas-Ailara had seemed nearly unstoppable in the first frame but was quickly blanketed by the Terps’ blocking.
Holding the Wildcats’ leader to just two kills in the second set, middle blockers Rainelle Jones and Laila Ricks put a lid on Thomas-Ailara, slowing down a once potent Northwestern attack and winning the second set, 25-19.
“Our goal was just trying to be around [Thomas-Ailara], make her have to keep hitting sharp angles, try to frustrate her a little bit,” Hughes said.
The Wildcats soon regained their earlier mojo, sprinting out to a 12-6 lead in the third set after sending five straight kills past Maryland’s defense. Northwestern continued to roll, holding a 23-19 advantage deep in the third frame to seemingly put the Terps away.
But as Maryland battled back — knotting the set at 23 — a booming Thomas-Ailara kill struck libero Milan Gomillion in the head, wiping away the Terps’ momentum.
Gomillion was walked to the locker room as Maryland faced a set point. And as a Csire putaway try clipped the net and rolled foul, Hughes’ squad found itself back down a set and its star libero.
However, despite losing one of their top layers in Gomillion, the Terps dug deep in the fourth.
With grad transfer Kaylee Thomas suddenly thrust into the starting lineup, Maryland put up a .381 hitting percentage in the fourth. Holding the Wildcats to just .194, the Terps forced a deciding fifth set in College Park with a comfortable 25-16 fourth set victory.
“Kaylee did a phenomenal job,” Hughes said. “I thought she really stepped up, she kind of settled us in serve-receive, which was a tough spot for us tonight.”
Neither team wanted to give an inch in the final set. Both teams walked hand-in-hand toward their target, staying within two points up until the scoreboard read 15-15.
And Northwestern found the final edge, sealing its hard-fought win with Thomas-Ailara’s kill to give the Terps their fourth straight loss.
“We just gotta wash it,” Thompson said. “Feel it for a few minutes, but make sure we get rested tonight and look forward [to] tomorrow.”