Illinois volleyball falls short in fifth set heartbreak loss to No. 9 Minnesota

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Sydney Laput

Senior outside hitter Jessica Nunge hits the ball over the net during the third set against No. 9 Minnesota on Sunday.

By Drew Friberg, Sports Editor

Five times the Illini have fallen just short of a season-highlight win. Pushing a ranked team to five sets has been no problem for the Illini all season, taking the likes of No. 5 Purdue and No. 8 Wisconsin to five in just one weekend. Capitalizing on this is the issue.

In the two teams’ second meeting of the season, Illinois (11-12, 6-7) pushed the No. 9 Minnesota Golden Gophers to five sets, before falling 15-13.

In a surprise change of tactics, Sunday’s match featured senior outside hitter Jessica Nunge for the first time as a hitter since September. She tallied 14 kills, while junior outside hitter Raina Terry and redshirt freshman Brooke Mosher tallied 21 kills a piece. Terry, redshirt senior Diana Brown and sophomore libero Caroline Barnes all achieved double-doubles.

The match started out with a weak showing from the Illini. After staying neck and neck with Minnesota through the first four points, the Golden Gophers went on a 6-0 run, and maintained that lead throughout set one. 

Taking set one 25-15, the Golden Gophers profited heavily off of a slew of service and attack errors from the Illini. Tallying seven errors in the first set to Minnesota’s two ultimately was Illinois’ undoing. Junior defensive specialist Becca Sakoda checked in to serve twice after being out for over a month with injury.

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    Nunge played her largest role in set two of Sunday’s match, starting off the set with her first kill since injuring her ankle before the team’s first conference match of the season. Replacing sophomore opposite Kayla Burbage on the floor, Nunge led an inspired Illinois to a set two victory over Minnesota, 25-16. Nunge tallied five kills, a block and four digs in set two, with Mosher also reaching 13 kills.

    “I think we had a new attitude in set two,” Nunge said. “At the end of set one, we were tired of the way we were playing and really stepped up. We decided we were going to control the game.”

    Set three began as a close affair, with the two teams being deadlocked through 11 points before the Golden Gophers pulled out in front. While Brown achieved her double-double on the night in set three, the Illini couldn’t pull out another set victory. Minnesota took set three 25-19.

    With its back against the wall down 2-1 in the match, Illinois engaged in the most grueling set of the day. Narrowly beating out the Gophers 25-23, the Illini forced a fifth set following Terry’s most prolific set of the day, also achieving her 1,000th kill for the program.

    The fifth set brought more sorrow for Illini hearts, as Illinois dropped its fifth top-25 matchup in five sets. Minnesota clutched out the match, and Illinois again was left frustrated.

    With just a few weeks left, the NCAA committee will be looking at matches like these as deciders to get into the tournament at the end of the year. Despite the loss, pushing five top-25 teams to five sets gives head coach Chris Tamas hope that at the end of the regular season Illinois will have matches left.

    “We’ve always been in the mix, but this year seems to maybe not be our year,” Tamas said. “But it’s not over yet. I told the team, we can still run the table and make the committee make a decision on if we are worthy enough. If you ask me, if we run the table and stick with it, we are.”

    Illinois next takes its loss streak into a longer week of rest followed by two matches at Michigan and Michigan State at the weekend. With just six matches left, each match is seeming more and more like a must-win.

     

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