Trailing 2-0 to No. 6 seed Central Michigan and out of rhythm, the No. 1 seeded Northern Illinois volleyball team nearly dug itself completely out of a hole as the Huskies fell four points shy of winning the Mid-American Conference Tournament championship in five sets (21-25, 22-25, 25-21, 25-23, 11-15).
“I want to first say congratulations to Central Michigan,” said NIU Head Coach Ray Gooden. “They were probably the best team here this weekend, and they showed it today. We had a dogfight against them. For the first time in a while we came in pretty tight. The things we take pride in — serving and passing — weren’t quite as crisp as we needed it to be today. But I give credit to Central for the pressure the put on us.”
Last season, NIU (27-6) was swept in the title match by Ohio and looked as if the unthinkable would happen again. But The Huskies loosened up after a tight and uncharacteristically sloppy first two sets that saw NIU have 13 hitting errors, four receiving errors, and a combined .227 hitting percentage. Meanwhile, CMU (18-12) chalked up a 7-2 blocking edge and hit .321 in the first two stanzas.
Down 13-9 in the third set and staring a sweep in the face, the Huskies rallied out of a timeout with two straight kills from second team All-MAC selection Allison McGlaughlin (Morton, Ill./Morton) and two-time reigning MAC Player of the Year Lauren Wicinski(Geneva, Ill./Geneva) that jump started an 11-4 run that put NIU ahead 20-17. With momentum starting to shift NIU’s way the Huskies closed out the set to force the fourth set after a tip from Wicinski beat CMU’s block.
With CMU noticeably tight and not playing with the same energy, NIU jumped out to a 6-2 lead in the fourth set after McGlaughlin hammered down an overpass. Later in the set, CMU recovered and made a push for a 19-15 edge. Needing someone to respond, second team All-MAC selection Sarah Angelos(Waukegan, Ill./Waukegan) scored NIU’s next three points to close the gap to 21-19. After a CMU block, three straight Chippewa errors tied the set at 22.
Out of a CMU timeout, first team All-MAC selection Mary Kursich (La Crosse, Wis./West Salem) and MacKenzie Roddy(San Bernardino, Calif./Cajon) teamed up for a huge block to put the Huskies up 23-22. Following a CMU kill, Wicinski took over with a kill and an untouched ace to force the fifth and match-deciding set.
In the fifth, a Wicinski tip gave NIU a 2-1 lead. The teams then exchanged points until CMU scored two straight to grab an 8-7 advantage at the turn. The first two plays after the switch changed all the momentum as Angelos misfired on a shot and Kurisch was blocked. Down 10-7, the Huskies called timeout to regroup but just couldn’t get anything going after that.
Handing NIU its first loss since Sept. 30th at Ball State and ending a 15-match winning streak, the Chippewas outhit NIU .321-.216 and were stout at the net with a 13-4 blocking advantage.
Three Huskies reached double figures in kills, led by Wicinski’s 20. McGlaughlin notched 17, tying a season high, and hit .316. Angelos tallied 14 and a .333 attack percentage. First team All-MAC selection Kristin Hoffman(Batavia, Ill./Batavia) racked up 62 assists.
Defensively, Amber Walker(Juneau, Alaska/Juneau Douglas/Western Oregon) led NIU with 17 digs. McGlaughlin and Wicinski had 12 apiece.
For the outstanding efforts in the tournament, Hoffman and Wicinski were named to the all-tournament team, NIU’s first such selections since 2001.
“For what we have done up until this point, this loss is going to be very difficult for our group,” Gooden said. “This season has been amazing and I’m proud of our group.
“We play Marquette next weekend in a pretty critical match. Then we have the NCAA selection show Sunday. We hope to be one of the top 64. We feel we have a pretty good body of work and hope the selection committee feels the same. It’s been an amazing season. I’m really proud to be a Huskie and so is our team.”
Next up for the Huskies is a 4 PM CT tilt with Marquette at Victor E. Court on Saturday, Nov. 26, as they hope for an NCAA Tournament appearance. Tune into ESPNU on Sunday, Nov. 27, at 5 PM CT for the NCAA selection show to see if the Huskies make the 2011 NCAA Tournament.