The game’s not over until you use all five sets.
Northwestern (13-8, 5-4 Big Ten) proved this when it battled back from a two-set deficit for a 3-2 win in its Wednesday Big Ten matchup against Illinois (8-11, 4-5).
“We swing for points and we’re going to go for it,” head coach Keylor Chan said. “That’s something that we have to do to play in the Big Ten, and we’re starting to do that very well.”
Senior outside hitter Stephanie Holthus led Northwestern to its fifth set against Illinois with 28 kills and 11 digs, putting away both the fourth and fifth sets with monster kills.
“She’s one of our leaders, and when your leader plays with confidence and is playing well, the whole team follows her,” Chan said. “She’s showing tremendous composure and grit this year, and that’s why we’ve been winning these close matches.”
Before completing the comeback, it looked as though Northwestern was going to lose to another Big Ten rival in three straight sets. The Wildcats lost to No. 2 Penn State on Sunday, snapping a three-game divisional winning streak.
The ‘Cats struggled in the first two sets, losing 25-19 in both. Illinois’s huge front line was difficult to overcome, especially junior outside hitter Liz McMahon, who towers over opposing teams at 6-foot-6. She’s got seven inches on Holthus and is three inches taller than Northwestern’s tallest player on the court, Maggie Burnham, who is 6-foot-3.
In the first set, the ‘Cats allowed McMahon to record seven kills. But that would be the most she’d get in a set, as Northwestern’s front line improved its blocking, logging 14 team blocks by the end of the night.
The Wildcats also had five serving errors in the first two sets, making it difficult for power server Monica McGreal, a junior outside hitter, to get into a rhythm.
But heading into the locker room down by two sets was the best thing for Northwestern. Redshirt junior, right side hitter Katie Dutchman said Chan came into the locker room ready to fire up his team and challenged the players to do better.
The ‘Cats came out firing in the third game, never looking back and almost never relinquishing the lead.
“Our team’s showing that we can battle back and adjust and persevere and a lot times, things will go your way if you can do that,” Chan said.
Two-time Big Ten Freshman of the Week Caleigh Ryan was NU's assist leader with 58 and redshirt sophomore libero Caroline Niedospial led the way in digs, with Ryan and freshman Kayla Morin following behind with 15 each.
Dutchman added to Northwestern’s 66 total kills with 14 of her own, and junior middle blocker Savannah Paffen led NU in blocks with seven.
“We were able to execute on the block,” Chan said on the change between sets two and three. “We were actually able to block them. The first two sets, we were terrible on the block and our timing was all over the place, and then at the end, we were able to fix our timing on the high, high balls.”
The win brings Northwestern to 13-8 on the season and 5-4 in the Big Ten. The ‘Cats will hit the road for their next three games, first heading to Minnesota on Sunday.