Volleyball: Northwestern’s season reaches new low in loss to Rutgers

Nia+Robinson+waits+for+the+ball.+The+junior+outside+hitter+had+18+kills+Sunday%2C+but+the+Wildcats+still+fell+to+Rutgers.

Daily file photo by Joshua Hoffman

Nia Robinson waits for the ball. The junior outside hitter had 18 kills Sunday, but the Wildcats still fell to Rutgers.

Benjamin Rosenberg, Web Editor


Volleyball


As the Rutgers players proudly sang their school’s alma mater and celebrated in the stands with the pep band at College Avenue Gym, Northwestern quietly exited the premises in a state of shock.

Since joining the Big Ten five years ago, the Scarlet Knights were an inconceivable 1-108 in conference matches and had lost 80 in a row dating to 2015. But that was before the Wildcats (9-13, 0-10 Big Ten) dropped a grueling five-set match in New Brunswick, New Jersey on Sunday, missing out on their best chance to get in the Big Ten win column.

“Any time (the other team) is cheering, it’s tough,” coach Shane Davis said. “It was a tough loss — tough for the team to hear.”

To add injury to insult, NU also lost its best player, freshman outside hitter Temi Thomas-Ailara, late in the second set when she landed awkwardly on the foot of a Rutgers player while making a play at the net. Thomas-Ailara returned briefly in the third set, but sat out each of the last two after Davis said the injury worsened.

Davis said the team will evaluate Thomas-Ailara on Monday after they return to Evanston.

Junior outside hitter Nia Robinson tried her best to fill the void, finishing with a match-high 18 kills and hitting .484. Robinson led the Cats back from two sets down to force a decisive fifth set, but they were unable to finish off the comeback.

NU had all the momentum entering the fifth set, but that was squandered when the Scarlet Knights (7-14, 1-9) jumped out to a 7-2 lead. After the Cats pulled within one, Rutgers won four straight points to close things out with a 15-10 victory.

There might not have been a fifth set, however, if NU had not started so poorly — the Scarlet Knights sprinted out to leads of 11-4 and 21-12 in the first set. NU rallied to tie it up after graduate setter Payton Chang replaced sophomore Kiara McNulty, but Rutgers finished it off in extra points when Robinson committed an attack error.

“Rutgers, like they have every match, came out really strong in that first set,” Davis said. “We weren’t doing too well handling the ball. Kiara was struggling, so we made a change to Payton, and Payton did a good job for us coming in and steadying the offense.”

The second set was even more gut-wrenching for the Cats. NU thought it had evened the match at a set apiece when Scarlet Knights middle blocker Merle Weidt appeared to hit the ball past the baseline. But a Rutgers challenge revealed that junior opposite hitter Danyelle Williams had deflected the shot, giving the point to the Scarlet Knights instead.

Rutgers won the next two points to win 26-24 and go up two sets to none.

“It was the right call,” Davis said. “It was a tough situation for us because we were out of substitutions, so we were stuck in a lineup with some non-passers passing. Going down 0-2 instead of 1-1 was really tough for our team to swallow.”

The Cats responded well, though, taking the third set 25-16. Robinson had five kills in the set as NU led wire-to-wire. The fourth set was as tight as the first two, but this time the Cats finished, with an ace by junior libero Lexi Pitsas sending the match to a fifth set.

But NU’s serving let it down at the most critical moments. The Cats had 14 service errors in the match and just five aces, with three of the errors coming in the fifth set.

With 10 matches remaining in the season, Davis said NU is still figuring out how to be consistent.

“We take turns making great plays, and we take turns making poor plays,” Davis said. “We just haven’t found a good consistency throughout a match yet, and that’s where it’s really hurting us.”

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Twitter: @bxrosenberg

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