With Maryland volleyball's postseason hopes in jeopardy Friday night against Northwestern, coach Steve Aird re-entered his squad's huddle 30 seconds before the third set started to offer advice.
The Terps captured narrow victories in the first two frames, but Aird told the team it needed to close the match with a decisive third-set showing.
That helped Maryland take the set, 25-13, and hit .609 in the frame. The Terps notched 16 kills with just two errors in the set, capping off a match in which they recorded their highest attacking percentage of the season (.432).
After falling to Ohio State on Wednesday — Maryland's only home loss to an unranked opponent — the Terps concluded the regular season with a showing for the NCAA tournament selection committee to consider before choosing a bracket Sunday night. Still, they missed the competition for the 12th straight year.
"[Aird's] just a great, great speaker and he knows how to keep the energy of the team up," outside hitter Gia Milana said. "We know we're way better than how we played [against Ohio State]. … We never wanted to feel like that again."
Outside hitter Erika Pritchard led Maryland with 15 kills and a .500 hitting percentage. Milana supplied her most efficient outing of the Big Ten slate, hitting 11 kills with one error. Maryland's top four attackers were underclassmen.
On Senior Night, middle blocker Hailey Murray and defensive specialist Samantha Higginbothem reaped the benefits of Maryland's already blossoming potential.
Murray has been key after the Terps lost middle blocker Katie Myers for the season. Murray began serving for the first time in her college career this year, and she added two aces on Friday. She's mentored middle blocker Jada Gardner, a freshman who finished with five kills and a .714 hitting percentage against the Wildcats.
Higginbothem has helped Maryland's passing, especially since libero Kelsey Wicinski was injured last month. With freshman libero Sam Burgio unexpectedly starting, Higginbothem has offered advice to younger players. She had two digs against Northwestern.
While Maryland's seniors helped carry the program to where it is now in Aird's fourth year at the helm, the dominant underclassmen performances in the third set against Northwestern illustrated that Aird's back-to-back ranked recruiting classes are ready to carry the workload. Maryland won six more games than it did last season.
"What I thought we saw in game three is kind of … the potential of this group," Aird said. "We certainly should get a really hard look at the NCAA tournament."
Pritchard closed a breakout freshman campaign second on the team with 331 kills. She delivered two consecutive kills before stuffing a Northwestern attacker to end the third set. Pritchard's attacking prowess has taken pressure off Milana, who led the team in kills by 197 last year.
Pritchard's addition led Milana to hit 91 fewer kills this year, but her hitting percentage rose and she hit 89 fewer errors.
Though Aird felt his team was hitting its stride behind Milana's play, it failed to attain its first tournament berth since 2005. But the sophomore will be back next year.
"She's a stud," Aird said. "When her mind's right and her game's right, when she's competitive like she is, and she's mindful, she's as good as anyone in the country. And she's had an up-and-down year at times, which is not uncommon when you're a sophomore trying to lead a team to an NCAA tournament. … Her best days are clearly coming."