Michigan State volleyball's junior outside hitter Grace Kelly fought hard early in the face off against Northwestern’s graduate student outside hitter Julia Sangiacomo, but Sangiacomo's overpowering performance ultimately gave Northwestern the edge for the narrow 3-2 win.
The Spartans looked strong in the first set, outperforming the Wildcats in what was an already back-and-forth first set winning it 25-22, but after losing two straight sets, the Spartans were in a hole. Michigan State was able to force a fifth set, but were once again overpowered by the high-powered Wildcat offense.
The first set was a back-and-forth fight between the Spartans and the Wildcats, as neither team wanted to give up more than a four-point lead.
MSU took the lead first going up 2-0 early, but an immediate response from the Wildcats triggered a back-and-forth match that resulted in 11 different ties before there was a clear set winner.
Senior setter Alexa Rousseau forced the final tie at 16-16 with the first ace of the night for both teams, but MSU responded with three straight points as it took a good lead late in the set.
However, the Wildcats were not shying away, and almost managed to creep up on the Spartans, forcing a timeout from MSU head coach Leah Johnson. Out of the break MSU, cleaned up its team play and won the first set 25-22.
The second set started much like the first, as there were seven straight ties to start as both teams were looking to take the second.
In the middle of the second set, after a few violations and a couple of key kills from Leilani Dodson, the Wildcats found themselves on a 4-0 run that boosted them to a seven-point lead, the largest of the set.
Kelly, who was going toe-to-toe with Sangiacomo during the second set, was fighting to break down the Wildcats lead. She got three straight kills to bring the lead to just four as MSU trailed 17-13. The thirteenth point was Kelly’s eleventh of the match at that point, and she had been really showing out for MSU after struggling against Nebraska the night before.
Coach Johnson spoke about Kelly’s performance after the game and mentioned Kelly was fighting through an illness.
"Tonight Grace Kelly had a good match," Johnson said, "You see these opportunities where we clearly have the ability for anyone to shine, and I was really proud of Grace. She struggled last night, she’s got a horrendous cold, she can barely talk and she still puts points on the board."
Kelly's streak was ultimately halted for a moment by the Wildcats as they capitalized on the slow play of the Spartans, who only scored three more points, and snagged the second set with an impressive score of 25-16.
The third set is when Sangiacomo began to take off, and she created a lot of separation for the Wildcats, scoring eight points in the third set alone. By the end of the third set, Sangiacomo had her 20th point of the game as Northwestern secured its second set of the match with a score of 25-20.
In a tough spot, the Spartans flipped the switch on the Wildcats and held a good lead all the way until another tie at 8-8.
Sangiacomo with another powerful kill gave the Wildcats their first lead of the set that they soon extended by another two points.
MSU's sophomore middle blocker Evie Doezema used her soft touch to fit the ball right in between the gap of three Wildcats. Freshman outside hitter Taylah Holdem followed that up with an emphatic kill to cut the Wildcats lead to two.
However, the Wildcat offense continued to have mini two or three-point runs on the Spartans each time they began to close in on the Northwestern lead until the Spartans were able to force another tie at 22-22.
Kelly continued to add to her spectacular performance and tied the set once again at 23-23 and at 24-24. The Spartans were able to get over the hump and force a fifth set to potentially pull off an exciting comeback.
Unfortunately, the Spartans returned to what coach Johnson described as, "sloppy and tentative volleyball," as the Wildcats sprung to an early 4-1 lead. Fifth-year middle blocker Amani McArthur was able to bring the Wildcat lead down with a block and a couple of key kills.
However, once again, the Wildcats held a commanding lead at 14-10, and a final kill from Sangiacomo gave the Wildcats match point, and the vistors ultimately won the match 3-2.
Forcing the fifth set was a big moment for the Spartans, but after playing two great sets the previous day along with four long sets in this matchup, they just weren’t able to pull it through.
Coach Johnson spoke on the team's overall performance against Northwestern.
"It's interesting because in the fourth set there to finish out we played clean, aggressive volleyball and for two and a half sets before that we didn’t, we played sloppy, tentative, and safe volleyball," Johnson said. "Then, we get in the fifth, and I thought we actually played the same, and they played just as clean, and then as we got to the second half of that set we reverted back."
Michigan State dropped two straight Big Ten games on the weekend as they move to 11-6 overall and 3-3 in the conference.
The Spartans will take nearly a week off as they rest and prepare for their rematch against Nebraska. The rematch against the Cornhuskers will be played on Friday, Oct. 13 and the Spartans turn right around for a match against Iowa on Saturday, Oct. 14.