GENEVA, Ohio - A true team effort pushed the Northern Illinois volleyball team to its third straight Mid-American Conference Tournament championship match as the No. 4 seed Huskies (21-13, 10-6 MAC) overcame a 0-2 deficit to No. 1 seed Ohio 23-25, 21-25, 25-18, 25-22, 15-11 Saturday afternoon at SPIRE Institute in the semifinals. NIU awaits the winner of No. 2 Bowling Green - No. 3 Western Michigan for the MAC championship tomorrow at 12 p.m. CT on SportsTime Ohio and ESPN3.
"Today was a great match," said NIU Head Coach Ray Gooden. "We couldn't turn the right points at the right time in the first set. We were a little slow in the second set. I apologized to the girls at the break about that. Thought I could've done a better job and they picked me up and went out there and kept fighting. We had a strong set in the third and battled in the fourth. We were up 8-7 at the flip and turned it right when we needed to using good defense and passing to win the fifth. It was a great team win for our group tonight."
In a rematch of the 2010 MAC title match that Ohio (20-10, 14-2 MAC) won 3-0 at Toledo's SeaGate Centre, a different venue and set of players led to an opposite result. With a majority of Ohio's impact players being underclassmen, NIU's experienced group that had been to two MAC title matches before stayed composed until the end to do something they haven't done all season - bounce back from a 0-2 deficit. But the veteran Huskies used lessons from the past and experience from their 4-1 record in five-set matches to win a monumental fifth five-setter of the year.
"We felt good about the fact that when we played them at their place we did really good things," Gooden said of NIU's 3-1 loss in Athens earlier this season. "We knew if we did the right things together we'd be OK. We stayed together. I give so much credit to our team. They play so well together and really interact well. That's what helps us and helped us tonight get over the edge against a really offensive team."
NIU simply put together team effort. With 15 blocks, including a MAC Tournament fifth-most 28 block assists, and a season-high 92 digs, the Huskies held Ohio to a .161 attack percentage and forced 33 hitting errors. They also held 2012 MAC Player of the Year Kelly Lamberti to a .158 hitting clip and forced her into 10 hitting errors.
Senior middle blocker Mary Kurisch (La Crosse, Wis./West Salem) led the way, coming one block short of a triple double. She notched 15 kills, hit a robust .480, blocked nine shots and totaled a career-high 10 digs.
Running the offense, freshman setter Alexis Gonzalez (Fresno, Calif./Bullard) dished out 58 assists and had 12 digs. She distributed to five different Huskies, led by senior outside hitter Meghan Romo's (Valparaiso, Ind./Valparaiso) 18 kills - she also had a career-high nine digs. Sophomore outside MacKenzie Roddy (San Bernardino, Calif./Cajon) racked up 17 kills and nine digs as well. Junior middle Sarah Angelos (Waukegan, Ill./Waukegan) tallied 14 kills and six blocks.
Defensively, senior libero Amber Walker (Juneau, Alaska/Juneau Douglas/Western Oregon) paced the Huskies with 22 digs, while senior defensive specialist Sue Hayes (Evergreen Park, Ill./Mother McAuley) amassed a career-best 18. Another career-best was achieved by sophomore middle Emily Paschke (Winfield, Ill./West Chicago Community), who totaled seven blocks.
In a clean and competitive first set that set the tone for the match - a dog fight -- the Huskies erased a 20-18 deficit with two kills from Romo and a bad Ohio set. But Ohio fired back with two straight kills. After a Huskie timeout, Paschke scored off the block and teamed with Angelos for a block to tie it, 23-23. Out of an Ohio timeout, the Bobcats scored on a kill, and after another NIU timeout, Angelos missed wide on a chance to keep it going.
If there were any time for NIU to cave, it was in the second set. Ohio marched out to a quick 9-4 lead and had everything rolling. The Huskies fought hard to get back within three points late, 24-21, after a Kurisch block, but the Bobcats closed it out for a 2-0 lead at the break. But the late rally by NIU kept its hopes alive.
The Huskies then came out firing in the third set, building a 17-10 lead. NIU easily took the set and all the match momentum, outhitting Ohio .263 to .026 and owning a 4-1 blocking edge.
A back and forth fourth set had NIU down 22-20 late. But experience kicked in as the Huskies didn't panic. An Ohio missed serve opened the door and junior defensive specialist Justine Schepler (Sycamore, Ill./Sycamore) served up an ace on the next play to tie it. Then a combo block by Paschke and Kurisch and kill by Roddy put NIU up 24-22. Once again, the Bobcats misfired on a swing, forcing the fifth set.
With Ohio noticeably tight and NIU loose and energetic, the Huskies took an 8-7 lead at the turn after another Roddy kill. A few plays later, the Huskies opened it up for good as two kills apiece from Angelos and Romo, along with a huge combo block by Kurisch and Romo, put NIU in front 13-11. Following a great diving dig by Walker, Romo scored crosscourt to give NIU match-point, 14-11. Then, Ohio missed way long on an attack to end the match.
NIU's third straight MAC title appearance is its sixth overall and second as a No. 4 seed. The Huskies enter the final match of the tournament with a 6-2 mark in the last three MAC Tournaments and have won six of their last seven matches overall.