When the Maryland volleyball team lost its Big Ten opener in straight-sets to Ohio State earlier this season, Buckeyes setter Taylor Hughes notched 31 assists.
Hughes suffered a season-ending injury in early November, though, and Ohio State has managed just one victory in four tries since then, putting it on the brink of NCAA tournament elimination. The team needed to beat the Terps on Wednesday to maintain its postseason hopes.
But without Hughes in the Buckeyes lineup, freshman setter Becca Mauer delivered her fifth straight performance of at least 30 assists to help defeat Maryland in four sets (18-25, 20-25, 25-21, 22-25).
"We've also beaten Ohio State the last two years here," coach Steve Aird said. "Ohio State knows that. It was the perfect storm for them of, 'We're not losing there again, we have to win to extend our [season].'"
The Terps could have virtually assured themselves a place in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2005 with two wins to close the year. Despite the defeat, Maryland remains in solid shape to make the postseason with 17 wins and its season finale against Northwestern at home on Friday.
While uncertainty has filled Ohio State's setting situation since Hughes' injury, Maryland's setters were the ones to struggle Wednesday. Setters Samantha Snyder and Abigail Bentz combined for three ball handling errors in the first set and totaled five for the match.
Setting mishaps have been an issue through the season. The Terps were tied for the second fewest assists per set in the conference entering the match. But Aird pointed towards first pass struggles, amplified without libero Kelsey Wicinski for the last month, as a reason for some of the miscues.
In theory, Mauer at 5-foot-9 compared to Hughes at 6-foot-1 should have been a detriment for Ohio State as she handles front-court duties, such as blocking, in an expanded role as the lone setter in a 5-1 system. The Terps couldn't exploit that mismatch, though, as they hit five fewer kills than the Buckeyes.
"I thought [Mauer] would be a defensive liability at the net," Aird said. "We didn't do a good enough job of exposing it. Better teams will."
Outside hitter Gia Milana led the Terps with 13 kills while Maryland hit .254. Ohio State hit .330 as a team with four players with double digit kill tallies. The Buckeyes also completed 18 more digs than the Terps did.
"That's effort and heart," Aird said. "… When you look at our offensive numbers, we didn't play bad. I think Ohio State played really well."
Though Mauer began the match off with a double contact violation, she made few mistakes. With a 10-8 lead in set one, Mauer surprised Maryland's blockers with an attempted a dump shot that replicated the attacking style Hughes commands. Libero Sam Burgio reached the effort with a dive, but the Terps couldn't return the volley, resulting in a kill for Mauer.
Mauer and defensive specialist Camry Halm ran into each other as they attempted a pass to gift Maryland a point in set two, displaying how the Buckeyes are working on chemistry as Mauer adapts to her role as a lone setter. But Ohio State still rolled to a 25-20 set victory as it hit .360 with 12 kills.
As one of four freshmen on the roster, Mauer carried the Gatorade bottles onto the court following Ohio State's intermission meeting. Yet she didn't show much of her inexperience on the court, finishing with two kills and nine digs.
Despite a 25-21 third-set win by Maryland in which the Terps registered 14 kills with a .237 hitting percentage, Ohio State bounced back to win the fourth set, 25-22.
Mauer set up the winning kill with her 46th assist of the match to middle blocker Lauren Witte. She leaned back, clenched her fists and let out a yell before her teammates met the freshman who played a major role in maintaining the team's tournament hopes.
Maryland, meanwhile, turned and looked at each other before meeting the Buckeyes at the net for handshakes, missing a key chance to add to its postseason resume.
"They knew that Hughes was out, everyone else had to play better," Aird said. "It's a different pressure when you know your season's over if you don't win. So, our kids, they knew we had another match and they know it's probable we'll move on and play in the postseason. I just wanted them to have a different sense of urgency. They didn't quite match the urgency that Ohio State had."