An unlikely run to the 2012 Mid-American Conference Tournament championship ended Sunday afternoon in a heartbreaking fashion for No. 4-seeded Northern Illinois at SPIRE Institute.
The Huskies went up 2-0 in the match and had two chances to sweep for their first MAC Tournament championship since 2001, but didn’t convert either time and then Bowling Green completely turned the tables the rest of the way to win it 20-25, 24-26, 26-24, 25-20, 15-4.
Already a rare matchup as NIU (21-14, 10-6 MAC) was picked to finish fourth in the West Division in the MAC Preseason Poll and Bowling Green (21-10, 13-3 MAC) third in the East, both teams got to the title match after five-set wins in the semifinals, NIU doing what Bowling Green did to them: responding from a 0-2 deficit against No. 1 seed Ohio to advance.
Riding the momentum from an incredible comeback semifinals win, the Huskies came out focused to grab a commanding 2-0 lead at the break.
In the first set, sophomore outside hitter MacKenzie Roddy (San Bernardino, Calif./Cajon) pushed the Huskies to a 10-5 lead with a kill off the block and an ace after a combo block by senior outside hitter Meghan Romo (Valparaiso, Ind./Valparaiso) and junior middle blocker Sarah Angelos (Waukegan, Ill./Waukegan). BG tried climbing back, getting as close as 18-16 after an ace, but a hitting error followed by a Romo kill and another Roddy ace kept NIU comfortably ahead to finish off the set. The Huskies outhit the Falcons .250-.194 in the frame and held a 4-0 edge in blocks.
NIU then opened the second set with a 16-8 lead as Romo paved the way with four kills and a block in the spurt. Everything seemed to be going the Huskies’ way and it looked as if NIU would roll through the second set and look for a sweep in the third. But then the Falcons struck back with a 12-3 run to take a 20-19 lead – and a dogfight ensued the rest of the way.
Angelos quickly answered with a kill and teamed with junior setter Kayla Zeno (Lake Elmo, Minn./Stillwater Area) for a block to put NIU in front again, 21-20. The teams then exchanged the lead once again before another Roddy ace gave the Huskies a 24-22 lead. BG fought off two set points but NIU prevailed as Romo scored off the block and Zeno combined with senior middle Mary Kurisch (La Crosse, Wis./West Salem) for a huge block to end the set and recapture momentum heading into the break with a 2-0 lead.
The third set featured 22 ties and 15 lead changes as the teams battled back and forth. Tied at 22-22, Romo scored again off the block and Kurisch followed on a quick to give NIU a 24-22 lead and two chances at winning the championship in a sweep. Romo misfired on the first and then BG answered with a kill to stay alive. NIU called timeout, but the wind had already noticeably been taken out of the sails, and the Falcons scored on another kill. Romo then missed again to send it to the fourth set.
Seizing the opportunity, like NIU did against Ohio the day before, the Falcons came out firing on all cylinders to take a quick 8-4 lead and left NIU scrambling the rest of the match. The Huskies clawed back to get back to a two-point deficit at 18-16 after a Kurisch kill on a quick, but they didn’t get any closer as the Falcons outhit NIU .400-.231 and took all the momentum into the fifth set.
BG’s play carried right into the final set and the Falcons took a commanding 4-0 lead. An early timeout helped NIU regroup for two straight points after a kill from Kurisch and stuff block by Romo, but the Falcons remained unfazed and ended the match on an 11-2 run, leaving NIU stunned and empty-handed for the third straight year in the title match.
For the match, BG held edges in kills (64-56), hitting (.206-.115) and digs (92-77), while NIU held advantages in aces (8-4) and blocks (13-9). Romo led NIU with 18 kills, adding six blocks. Kurisch tallied 14 kills and six blocks. Angelos and Roddy each had 10 kills. Additionally, Angelos racked up a team-high seven blocks and Roddy served up five aces and 13 digs.
In the back row, senior libero Amber Walker (Juneau, Alaska/Juneau Douglas/Western Oregon) paced NIU with 29 digs. Junior defensive specialist Justine Schepler (Sycamore, Ill./Sycamore) also reached double figures with 12.
NIU’s two all-tournament selections went to Kurisch and Romo. Kurisch hit .318 with 2.93 kills and 1.64 blocks per set in three tourney matches. Romo averaged a team-high 3.36 kills per set along with 0.71 blocks and 1.07 digs per set.
The Huskies also wrote several records with their run in the tourney as they set the block assist record with 70, had the fifth-most total blocks with 38, and totaled the third-most digs with 232. Individually, Walker’s 73 digs were the second most, while three Huskies broke the block assists record of 12 – Kurisch (22), Angelos (13) and Emily Paschke (13). Kurisch’s 23 total blocks broke the tourney record of 20.
NIU will end the season against Marquette at 6 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 24, in Milwaukee, Wis.