There were times during Maryland volleyball's eight-day gauntlet against four top-10 teams on the road when the Terps looked like they belonged.
The Terps lost by a combined eight points to No. 5 Minnesota on Nov. 3. Then, they took one set against then-No. 8 Wisconsin. Saturday, facing No. 1 Penn State in University Park, Maryland was outplayed in the match en route to a sweep, but it managed to match the Nittany Lions' scoring output to close the second frame and start the third.
But there were other periods in which Maryland's lack of experience showed. After a string of four defeats, the dent in the Terps' record isn't as important in the team's view as the experience.
"Now we take something to learn from each match and we apply it in practice, so we keep getting better," outside hitter Erika Pritchard said. "Knowing we can be with them at times is a really cool feeling and that'll improve our game as we move forward."
Maryland's own miscues prevented it from extending the match beyond three sets against Penn State. The Terps racked up 29 attack errors and 11 service errors. They were young mistakes, outside hitter Gia Milana said, bringing inconsistency to the squad's play.
Coach Steve Aird didn't lessen the intensity of Friday's practice prior to the final road match of the regular season, Milana said. The training helped the Terps bounce back from a midweek match against No. 6 Nebraska.
Sunday allowed the team to relax before its final four home matches. Next Friday's matchup with Iowa is the first against an unranked opponent since Oct. 27.
"Once you go through it, you go, 'Okay, that's the best of the best, in the most hostile environments they have, and it's late in the year so all of those teams are shooting up to get ready for the tournament," Aird said. "It's never going to get harder than what it's been."
Milana said her team has the physicality and talent to compete at the level of top-tier Big Ten programs, but Maryland needs to add consistency to get to the next level themselves. Teams such as Penn State manage the game well, limiting the errors that plagued the Terps' chances.
Milana predicts that once Maryland is able to do the same, the Terps "are going to be hard to stop."
Despite four straight losses, Aird maintained his long-term view on the process of building Maryland. He knew the probability of a quick match against his former team Penn State, just as he was aware of it ahead of Maryland's other three top-10 matchups.
"I don't know if there's a team in the country that's going 4-0 in this stretch," Aird said. "You can't get caught up in what you're not. I mean, I think we have a good, young team. I think they have a long way to go. But for me to be upset because we're not a final four team yet is foolish."
The Terps are on the verge of their first NCAA tournament berth since 2005. With 16 wins, they're eligible, but attention shifts toward Maryland's final four matches to gain steadier footing before selection Sunday on Nov. 26.
Three of the last four matches this season are against unranked teams, and the Terps defeated Northwestern once this season, too.
"The last home stretch is going to be one that we're going to go after," Milana said. "We've had a rough couple of weeks, but we're going to reset our minds and we're super, super excited for what's to come in our home gym."
Correction: Due to an editing error, a previous version of this article showed the incorrect story. It has been updated.