The Illinois State Redbird volleyball team (22-11,12-6 MVC) survived and is advancing to the NCAA tournament after defeating the Northern Iowa Panthers (24-10,17-1 MVC) in the Missouri Valley Tournament championship game in three sets. Kaylee Martin led her team in kills with 17. This is the first time that UNI has been swept by a conference team since Nov. 25, 2017 in the championship game against Missouri State.
The Redbirds came into this championship game riding a seven-game winning streak, and while that is quite the accomplishment, the Panthers did them one better sporting a 12-game streak that had many opponents fearful to step on the court with them. UNI’s streak started after a loss to the Redbirds on Oct. 12, so regardless of both teams having a successful season, one had to fall.
Only one team looked ready for this monumental game and that was the Redbirds who got off to the hot starts in each of the three sets. Early on, the play by Sarah Kushner was key to the Redbirds attack as she totaled three kills within the first five points scored. Soon to follow was Kaylee Martin who also put up three kills rather quickly.
The Panthers seemed so out of sorts through the first set, trailing 10-2 and already using both of their timeouts. Back-to-back service aces looked to have jumpstarted the UNI offense, but to no avail as a service error followed. Something that never changed was the continuous from the ’Birds. Having built their lead to 10 points, the Redbirds looked ferocious on both ends of the court. Martin and Kushner were supplying the offense, while Emmy Ogogor and Sydney Holt blocked any chance of the Panthers making a comeback attempt.
Holt finished off the set with a kill to the back row that was too difficult to handle, taking the first set 25-21.
Following up on a terrific set, the ’Birds pushed out to a 7-3 lead, resulting in UNI head coach Bobbi Peterson calling a timeout. Attempting to center her offense around MVC player of the year Karlie Taylor, the Panthers continued to try to eat away at the lead that ISU was building. At every turn the ’Birds just outworked the Panthers. The Panthers came into this game sporting one of the best front lines in the conference, but the ’Birds were the winners on the front lines in blocks.
Martin continued her pressure on the Panthers’ back row, but with the errors already costing UNI, they fell behind two sets to none, losing 25-16.
Between the second and third sets, ISU head coach Leah Johnson praised the play of Martin and the effort that her team was putting in. That effort was again present as the ’Birds dominated the beginning of the third set with a 4-0 run that forced UNI into a timeout. Out of the timeout, the Panthers went on a run that saw them take their first lead of the entire match, up 9-8. While it was short lasted, the Panthers were able to change the pace, keeping this set tight.
While the Panthers began to find themselves, Martin was as hot as ever, scoring four consecutive kills to put her team up 18-12. While it seemed like the Panthers could mount the comeback, the Redbirds were having none of it. Finishing the set by way of a Martin kill 25-19, sweeping the reigning regular season champions.
Having won their 18th game in a row, the Redbirds are the best they have been all season. Having a healthy lineup, reliable youth and a winning culture have been attributed to this run over the past several weeks.
The Redbirds now await their placement into the NCAA tournament, where they have secured an automatic bid due to their victory. The NCAA Women’s Volleyball Selection Special will air at 7:30 p.m. Sunday on ESPNU.