Volleyball: Northwestern knocks off No. 9 Illinois in intense five-set match

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Nathan Richards/Daily Senior Staffer

After being benched midway through Northwestern’s match against No. 9 Illinois on Wednesday, freshman Symone Abbott re-entered in time to play a major role in the Wildcats 3-2 victory. NU plays Illinois again Saturday, this time in Champaign, Illinois.

Max Gelman, Reporter


Volleyball


The rivalry between Illinois’ two Big Ten teams is beginning to heat up.

On Wednesday evening, No. 9 Illinois visited Northwestern for the first in a two-match home-and-home series. The Wildcats won 3 sets to 2, knocking off a top-1o team at home for the first time since defeating No. 2 Nebraska in 2011.

“It’s big,” coach Keylor Chan said after the game. “It’s a rivalry, and I think more than just winning, it’s how we’re playing volleyball … It’s hard sometimes when you get beat up in the Big Ten, but the character that we’re showing in continuing to fight, get better and improve I think says a lot.”

Sophomore hitter Kayla Morin also stressed the importance of the victory.

“Any win’s a huge win in the Big Ten,” Morin said. “Then to beat a team in the top-10 (nationally) and then compounded on that, they’re one of our biggest rivals, so it’s just a huge win for us.”

NU got off to a strong start against its rival, taking an early 7-5 lead, then stretching their lead to 15-9. Illinois cut the deficit to 1 but never posed any real threat to NU in the first set. The Cats maintained their composure and won the set by a score of 25-20.

Off to another blazing start in the second, NU won 5 of the opening 7 points. After eventually falling behind 22-21, NU won the next 4 points, taking the second set 25-22 and a 2-0 lead in the match.

With victory in the Cats’ sights, the third frame began with the teams splitting the opening 16 points. Chan made an interesting substitution early in the frame, pulling freshman hitter Symone Abbott off the court for senior Yewande Akanbi.

“Symone just needed a break,” Chan said. “She just wasn’t playing very well, and Yewande’s very capable. And she came in and gave us three good blocks. I just think that it was good that Symone got a break and got to recollect herself. That’s what good teams do. Other players step up when their team needs them.”

Akanbi immediately made her presence felt with one of the blocks Chan talked about, pulling the Cats within one. However, NU dropped the next four points, which prompted a timeout from Chan. It didn’t help, and Illinois led by a commanding seven points before the Cats won another rally. NU ultimately lost the third set 25-16.

After the Illini took an early fourth set lead 5-3, Chan put Abbott back in the game, and she quickly tallied two kills to tie the set at 5. NU won 3 straight points to tie the set at 11. The Fighting Illini kept the pressure on by taking a 21-12 lead. Lack of communication killed the Cats this set, and Illinois forced a deciding fifth frame, winning the fourth 25-15.

Freshman setter Taylor Tashima clinched her first career triple-double in the fourth, eclipsing double digits in kills, assists and digs. She would finish with 10 kills, 23 assists and 11 digs.

Suddenly the match looked like it would finish in the same heartbreaking way that NU lost to Purdue a few weeks ago. Leads always seem smaller in the fifth set when teams are playing to 15 rather than 25, and the Cats made sure they were focused on the match at hand.

“I wasn’t really thinking about (the loss to Purdue),” junior Libero Caroline Niedospial said. “I had a good feeling coming into this game. The whole time we knew we were going to win the game, and I think that’s a great mentality, especially in that fifth set. We all knew we were going to win.”

And win the Cats did.

In the final set, NU went up early 4-2, but Illinois never fell far behind. Abbott caught on fire, notching three kills in NU’s first six points. Illinois tied the set at 7, but the Cats roared back into the lead, winning the next 2 points. Niedospial showed off some nice reflexes with a few excellent digs.

Once again, Illinois tied the game – this time at 9 – but NU quickly took the lead again with 4 straight points. Abbott helped out with another kill that went straight to the floor without being touched. After a controversial call in which an Abbott kill that was blocked appeared to fall on the Cats’ side of the court, NU took the set 15-11 and won the match, finishing off Illinois.

The Cats have another match against the Illini on Saturday, this time on the road. Chan said he hopes keeping up the intensity from tonight’s match won’t be difficult on Saturday.

“It better not be,” Chan said with a smile. “Otherwise it’s going to be a short night for us.”

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