Ahead 2-0 Saturday against No. 12 Minnesota, the MSU volleyball team was in position to earn a big victory and send its two seniors off happy in their final career home game.
Instead, the Golden Gophers reeled off three straight set wins and left the Spartans on the losing end of a 3-2 game for the second straight match.
Despite once again playing strong against top-tier competition, the Spartans fell to 5-13 in the Big Ten and were forced to grapple with another tough loss.
“We’re right there,” head coach Cathy George said. “We are so right there with every team we play. We’ve got to start closing the door.”
MSU was defeated in the fifth set Wednesday at No. 14 Michigan, falling short of an emotional upset victory in the final minutes.
From the early minutes of Saturday’s match, the game had the feel of a Spartans’ victory as MSU controlled the tempo early.
MSU seized advantage of the first set late in the frame with back-to-back points from sophomore outside hitter Becca Zlabis and senior middle blocker Vanessa King to take a 20-17 lead.
Junior outside hitter Megan Schatzle smoked the ball to give MSU a 24-21 lead, and Schatzle finished off the first set with a kill to lift the Spartans to a 1-0 advantage.
King’s service ace late in the second set put the Spartans ahead 21-13, and a sprawling defensive effort a few plays later resulted in a Zlabis kill that increased the Spartans’ lead and helped seal a 2-0 advantage.
The Spartans’ 2-0 start was highlighted by accurate serving and their hitters’ ability to terminate the ball, but those things became more difficult as the match progressed.
“We were passing and serving extremely well and we kept them out of system,” George said. “We took a little pressure off them in the service game, and that started opening up their offense a little bit. I think you started to see that creep in, and we started playing a little more tentative at that time.”
A monster block from sophomore middle blocker Kyndra Abron put MSU ahead 13-12 in the third set, but Minnesota responded by scoring the next three points, and received some sustained offense to take a 20-16 lead that it would maintain to win the third set.
The Gophers again used a couple of scoring runs to wrap up a 25-19 win in the fourth frame and set the stage for a winner-take-all fifth set.
Minnesota jumped in front 8-3 and looked like it would cruise to victory, but the Spartans came back with a 4-0 run that was capped by a dynamite kill by Abron.
Minnesota got the next three points to pull closer to a victory, but for the second time in the set, MSU rebounded with good play up front to pull to within 12-11, but that would be as close as the Spartans would get as Minnesota wrapped up a 15-12 set win.
“We just need to be a little more consistent and keep that pressure on teams and not let them get on their runs,” junior libero Allyson Karaba said. “When we do well, we stop the runs of the other team. When they get on a two- or three-point run and we stop it, that’s how we win games.”
MSU showcased its depth by having five players score in double figures. Abron posted 17 kills to lead the team, while Schatzle recorded 14, and King, Zlabis and senior middle blocker Mischelle Nelson had 10 apiece.
The Spartans have two regular season games left and will try to finish strong next weekend on the road against No. 1 Penn State and Ohio State. King and Nelson were honored after Saturday’s game for their hard work and service to the MSU volleyball program.
“It was my last home game and I just wanted to go out there and have fun and I think I did that,” King said. “Aside from the end result, I think I had fun … We’ve got Penn State and Ohio State, and I don’t know what to do but to go aggressively at everything. We’ve got nothing to lose.”
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