Trailing 24-23 in the fourth set of their Big Ten opener, Anastasia Russ positioned herself front and center at the net and soared to meet a high-arcing Sydney Dowler feed as Maryland volleyball desperately tried to regain its grip in a set that was suddenly slipping away.
The six-foot-five middle blocker reached back and cannoned a spike toward Illinois’ block, but Kyla Swanson smothered Russ’ attack back down to the Terps’ zone as an invigorated Huff Hall crowd exploded in cheers.
Swanson’s rejection was the apex of a stunning 5-0 Illinois onslaught to close the fourth set, as the Terps squandered a 23-20 lead and fell to the Fighting Illini, 3-1, in Friday’s conference-opener in Urbana-Champaign.
“I told the team I was proud of the fight,” said coach Adam Hughes. “They could have folded quickly and kept battling, battling, battling and … had a window there to send it to five.”
After back-to-back errors by Kayla Burbage propelled Maryland to within two points of forcing a decisive fifth set, Illinois coach Chris Tamas summoned his team to the bench to regroup.
The stoppage was exactly what Illinois needed, as the Fighting Illini caught their breath and pieced together a backbreaking scoring burst. Raina Terry bookended a 3-0 run out of the timeout with her 19th and 20th kills before Burbage rebounded with her eighth putaway of the night that pushed the Terps to match point, setting up Swanson’s match-sealing stuff.
The Terps remain winless against Illinois, now 0-12 all-time.
The Fighting Illini seemingly suffered a blow before the match even started after it was announced that Illinois’ Jessica Nunge, who is second on the team in kills and aces, was ruled out due to injury.
However, her absence was of little benefit to the Terps, as redshirt freshman setter Brooke Mosher stepped in for Nunge and powered home 14 kills on 26 swings, finishing second only to Terry’s 20 putaways.
Illinois controlled the pace from the get-go in the first set, piercing Maryland’s vaunted defense with 15 kills as the Terps routinely found themselves scrambling to keep up with the Fighting Illini attack.
“They do something out of system we haven’t seen this year,” Hughes said. “They’re playing a little bit more like a men’s team … they like to set balls tight and inside and they try to wreck hands or go underneath.”
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Terry torched Maryland in the opening set, landing five kills before the Terps could muster a putaway of their own.
Though it entered the match leading the Big Ten with 2.18 aces per set, Maryland could only manage one unreturnable serve in the opening frame and issued the Fighting Illini four service errors.
“I think [Illinois] got themselves out of some of those traps that we had,” said Hughes. “We’re gonna have to close some of those things up … just gave away a few too many freebies.”
The Terps’ service woes were compounded by their lack of offensive rhythm in the frame, as Maryland scored three consecutive points only once throughout the set. Freshman Laila Ivey led Maryland with three kills, but the Terps only posted four more to finish the stanza with a .091 hitting percentage.
“They’ve always been historically a very good defensive team that kind of slows you down and tries to grind you out,” Hughes said. “They’re kind of a mimic a little bit in terms of defense.”
The duo of Terry and Mosher combined for 11 kills in the frame as the Fighting Illini steamrolled 25-17 in a set they never trailed.
But in set two, it was the Terps who led from the jump.
Maryland thrived on a host of contributions from all areas of the court, as six different players logged kills, helping the Terps to a respectable .241 hitting percentage.
Maryland’s offense snapped awake right away, using kills from Russ, Laila Ricks and Rainelle Jones to grab a 4-1 lead.
Meanwhile, the Terps cleaned up their act from the service line following a messy first frame, getting two key aces from Ricks and Sam Csire to keep Maryland ahead.
While Terry and Mosher poured in four and five more kills, respectively, the Terps’ defense began to stiffen, stymying the Fighting Illini with five blocks to keep Illinois at bay.
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Csire came alive in the second stanza, scattering four timely kills as the Terps played keep-away with the lead throughout the set. Her final kill proved costly for the Fighting Illini, as her scorcher off Burbage kickstarted a 7-1 run that featured five Illinois errors as the Terps scampered to a 25-18 win to even the match.
“She’s gonna have to be the key gun,” Hughes said of Csire. “I [think] she’s learning last year is a growth moment to this season where she’s gonna have to be the person who’s gonna take a big hack.”
Csire’s clinic continued in the third set, as the Terps used three more early kills to keep pace, but the Terps did themselves no favors by gifting the Fighting Illini a bevy of critical points.
A Terry service error cut the Illinois lead to 5-4, but that’s as close as the Terps would get in a crucial swing frame. Maryland squandered a Csire service opportunity, allowing the Fighting Illini to notch five of the next six points, a rally that would prove fatal to the Terps’ chances.
Fueled by nine Maryland attack errors, the Fighting Illini only needed ten kills in the frame, including four from Kennedy Collins, to cruise past the Terps 25-15.
“We’re just trying to grow in that area of understanding what’s a good miss and what’s a miss that we’d like to get back,” Hughes said. “And we’ll watch the film and see what corrections we can make.”
Finding themselves down a set once again, however, the Terps refused to give in.
After scrapping to a 10-9 lead, the Fighting Illini ripped off five consecutive points as the Huff Hall crowd began to simmer with each score, sensing a victory in their conference-opener.
Their momentum was stymied, however, as Illinois gave Maryland a breath of life with four errors, allowing the Terps to fight back to within one.
Maryland’s surge only intensified when Ivey and Jones stymied a Fighting Illini attack to even the score at 17, leading to Csire’s 15th kill four points later that gave Maryland a 20-19 lead.
A Dowler ace and Burbage’s errors put Maryland on the doorstep of a set-five showdown, but Tamas’ timeout keyed Illinois’ match-clinching scoring spree to send the Terps back to College Park with a painful conference blemish.