Volleyball: Northwestern suffers regular season sweep to Illinois, loses in four sets


Brennan Leach/The Daily Northwestern

Junior Temi Thomas-Ailara dives for the ball in Northwestern’s home matchup against Illinois. The Fighting Illini completed a regular season sweep of the Cats in a 3-1 match victory.

John Riker, Sports Editor

Regardless of the sport or venue, Northwestern’s rivalry with Illinois always elevates the stakes.

“We want to be Illinois’ Big Ten Team, not just Chicago’s,” junior outside hitter Temi Thomas-Ailara said.

Wednesday night marked the second time the Wildcats and Fighting Illini have squared off this season, with the team’s Sept. 25 contest going all the way to a fifth set before culminating in an Illinois victory. But it had been almost two years since Welsh-Ryan Arena last hosted the in-state battle after the spring season’s games were postponed and never rescheduled.

For sophomore setter Alexa Rousseau, her first time defending home court against the Fighting Illini was an extra source of motivation.

“Every single match is a dogfight in the Big Ten,” Rousseau said. “But when your home state is at stake, that just riles our team up even more.”

NU came out strong and energized with a 25-20 first set victory, showing no signs of fatigue after four straight road games over the past two weeks. But Illinois (13-7, 5-4 Big Ten) swung momentum and captured the next three sets to down the Cats (8-12, 3-6) and earn a season sweep.

Rousseau praised NU’s communication as one of the strengths of its performance, and early on it was a deciding factor in the first set. The Fighting Illini struggled with errors, enabling the Cats to maintain control of the first set and win the set by a five-point margin.

The Cats couldn’t capitalize on their early lead, done in by struggles with their execution and Illinois’ hard-hitting offense. The Fighting Illini also succeeded in keeping NU away from the net, giving them an advantage coach Shane Davis emphasized as a deciding factor.

“They made a few timely errors in set one, but their consistent pressure was much better and in sets two, three and four, they obviously kept us off the net,” Davis said. “We gave Illinois too many easier opportunities where they could run their middle, run their transition offense in system much better.”

Illinois evened the match with a 25-19 win in the second set, then erased the Cats’ 8-5 lead in the third set by winning 13 of the next 15 points. NU regained its composure in the fourth set and pulled within a 20-19 margin, but it wasn’t enough as the Fighting Illini closed out a 25-21 fourth set win.

After the promising start, the Cats’ execution wasn’t up to their standard. NU finished the match with 20 errors to Illinois’ 12.

“We can just make some better choices,” Davis said. “We can vary up some shots a little bit to get those blocks guessing a little bit or taking different angles.”

The Cats’ homestand will finish up with a Saturday match against Iowa (2-17, 0-9), a team NU defeated in straight sets in Iowa City last weekend. Despite the Hawkeyes’ position in the cellar of the Big Ten standings, NU is preparing for another tightly contested Big Ten battle.

“Even just getting another opportunity to go out again, especially in this amazing atmosphere we have at home, is a gift,” Rousseau said. “We’re really excited to go out there and prove that we can be even cleaner, play even harder and work even harder together.”

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Twitter: @john__riker

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