Illini volleyball win streak snapped at Northwestern

The streak is over.

The No. 9 Illinois volleyball team lost to Northwestern in five sets by scores of 20-25, 22-25, 25-16, 25-15 and 11-15 in Evanston, Illinois, on Wednesday night, snapping a seven-match winning streak in the process.

Although the Illini (18-6, 10-3 Big Ten) came into the match having won nine of their last 11 matches against the Wildcats (15-9, 5-8), Illinois continued the trend of underperforming at Northwestern. The loss is the Illini’s second in a row at Welsh-Ryan Arena.

“We started off slow and didn’t come out as strong as we needed to,” junior outside hitter Jocelynn Birks said. “They just were attacking and didn’t stop.”

The first set of the match was extremely close early on as there were five ties within the first six points. Illinois expanded its lead to 9-6 before Northwestern closed the gap and tied the set at 13.

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From there the Wildcats made a run of their own, opening an 18-15 lead. Illinois cut the lead to 21-20, but couldn’t make it any closer. Northwestern scored four unanswered points and went on to take the first set.

“We played hard,” head coach Kevin Hambly said. “We just didn’t execute very well. We struggled passing in the first set.”

In the second set, Northwestern jumped out to an early 3-0 lead before Illinois bounced back to tie the set at six. 

The lead changed back and forth throughout the set as the Illini and the Wildcats each mounted small runs to retake the lead.

Illinois tied the match at both 20 and 21 points a piece and even took a 22-21 lead, but again couldn’t stop a late swing of four unanswered points from Northwestern that allowed the Wildcats to take the second set in the same way they took the first.

Northwestern pounced on Illinois in the first two sets on the way to a 2-0 set lead going into the break. Coming out of the second and third set break, the Illini played like a completely different team.

“They were the aggressor in the first two sets,” Hambly said. “We were in the third and fourth and then they were again in the fifth. Whoever the aggressor was and who was going for it and attacking was the team that was going to win and that’s what happened.”

The third set was as closely contested as the first two early on. Illinois mounted a 5-1 run to take a 12-9 lead before going on a 10-4 run to widen the lead to 22-13. 

Northwestern scored two unanswered points to cut the lead to 22-15, but the Illini eventually took the third set.

In the fourth set, just as had been the case in the first three, the Illini and the Wildcats traded the lead back and forth early on. As had been the case in the third set, Illinois pulled away from Northwestern as the set progressed.

After a tie at 11 points, the Illini went on a 10-1 run to build a 21-12 lead. From there, Illinois held off Northwestern and sealed the set.

As was the case for the entire match, the fifth set was closely contested. Illinois and Northwestern went back and forth with ties at seven and nine points apiece. After a 3-0 run the Wildcats took a 12-9 that they would not relinquish for the rest of the match.

“We were working hard and trying to make plays but I don’t think we executed at the level we needed to,” Birks said.

Illinois’ offense was extremely balanced on the night as the Illini had five players record seven or more kills. 

Junior outside hitter Jocelynn Birks and senior outside hitter Morganne Criswell led the way for the Illini offensively as they finished with 14 and 13 kills, respectively.

Neither team played extremely well on the offensive end as the Illinois and Northwestern finished with respective hitting percentages of .188 and .125.

On the defensive side of the ball, sophomore middle blocker Katie Stadick helped slow down the Wildcats with 12 block assists on the night. 

But even Stadick’s effort and the team’s 18 blocks couldn’t stop the Wildcats, who emerged with the win.

Illinois will get a chance to exact revenge fairly soon though, as Northwestern will travel to Champaign this Saturday for a match at Huff Hall. 

Illinois was a game back of Big Ten leader Wisconsin, prior to the loss. Even with the slip up on Wednesday, there are still seven games remaining on the schedule. 

Nicholas can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @IlliniSportsGuy.