For the first two sets of its Saturday match against Northwestern, the MSU volleyball team appeared to be suffering from a post-big game hangover.
On Friday night, the Spartans won their 20th game of the season in a 3-1 rout of No. 7 Illinois, making for their biggest upset since 2007, when the Spartans toppled then-No. 7 Wisconsin.
But when they took the court against Northwestern, the Wildcats stunned the Spartans and the Jenison Field House crowd, jumping out to a 2-0 set lead.
At the intermission, it seemed that the Spartans were about to be upset themselves, but behind the play of senior outside hitter Kyndra Abron, Michigan State found a spark and rallied back for a 3-2 set victory, completing a season sweep of the Wildcats.
“We just really needed this game,” Abron said. “(Yesterday) was such a big win. It would be a huge letdown to slow down now. We knew we could beat Northwestern because we had before, and that’s all it took.”
Abron finished with a career-best 22 kills and was joined by fellow senior outside hitter Jenilee Rathje, who had 17 kills and 13 digs, giving her the 16th double-double of her career.
As a whole, the team finished with a .212 hitting percentage while holding the Wildcats to a .160 mark.
Defensively, the Spartans (21-9 overall, 10-8 Big Ten) were anchored by sophomore middle blocker Alexis Mathews and freshman middle blocker Jazmine White, who had eight blocks apiece for the Green and White. As a team, MSU finished with 19 total blocks, its most of the season.
For head coach Cathy George, the team’s 21st season win is the most regular season victories George has had while coaching at MSU and the most total victories since 2007.
She said the team’s ability to fight back was a display of maturity in the young team’s mindset.
“We keep growing in leaps and bounds in terms of things that have been our Achilles’ heel in the past,” George said.
“We didn’t come in maybe as focused as we needed to, and that’s hard when you have a big win like we did last night. Emotions are high, and we came a little flat today. But we were able to rebound and get that emotion back. And that was huge.”
The win essentially seals an MSU berth into the NCAA tournament and likely will improve its standing in the AVCA Coaches poll, where the Spartans have been receiving votes, but have yet to be ranked in the top 25.
The big weekend also marks the first weeklong sweep for the Spartans since Big Ten play began at the end of September. MSU now stands alone at No. 5 in the Big Ten and will finish with at least a .500 conference record.
To make the victory even sweeter, when Rathje stepped onto the floor in set two, she broke the program record for total sets played with 478. With just one tournament appearance, she also will tie the MSU record for total matches played.
“It’s a huge honor, and I’m just so thankful to have the opportunity in the first place,” she said. “I’ve absolutely loved every single minute of it, and I’m just glad to have done it with this team.”
On Wednesday, the Spartans will look to continue the three-game winning streak, their longest of the conference season, on the road against their in-state rivals, No. 23 Michigan.
The Spartans will follow that game with their final home match against No. 12 Penn State on Nov. 26.
“It’s a huge statement for us,” Rathje said about the win.
“To be able to come back from 0-2, that type of play and confidence is going to be crucial for us in the tournament.”
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