CEDAR FALLS — No. 22-ranked Northern Iowa’s volleyball team labored through the first two sets, and barely escaped an early 2-0 deficit Saturday night inside the McLeod Center.
One night removed from a grueling five-set road loss at Drake, Illinois State was initially scrappier on defense and more accurate passing as the Redbirds took the opening set and led 23-21 in set two, but late miscues prevented an upset bid from further materializing.
UNI came out of intermission strong and remained perfect in Missouri Valley Conference play, 20-25, 26-24, 25-13, 25-21.
“It was pretty frustrating in game one because there was not a lot of game plan changing we could do,” UNI head coach Bobbi Petersen said. “We were not hitting our responsibilities. In game two we did a much better job of that, but the game was still neck and neck. ... Definitely thankful to be one and one in that situation (entering intermission).”
Outside hitter Bri Weber served as a much-needed source of stability as she paced UNI (14-4, 4-0 MVC) with 21 kills on .383 hitting to go with 15 digs. Middle Piper Thomas added 18 kills at a .438 clip and Heather Hook distributed 47 assists for a UNI team that committed just eight attack errors over the final three sets after seven miscues in the opener.
Illinois State (9-9, 2-3) climbed to a 21-12 lead in that first set as UNI’s seven errors were matched by just seven kills.
The Redbirds then used an 8-1 run to take a 12-8 lead in set two before UNI chipped away at the deficit. With the score tied at 24, Illinois State had a service error and an attack error as UNI leveled the match.
When Petersen entered the locker at intermission, the message she heard from her players was in line with the corrections she felt needed to be made.
“We felt like we were just kind of slow,” Hook said. “We just talked about cleaning up our errors.
“Illinois State is a team that’s never going to give up and they’re not going to give us points. I think our team did a really good job of staying patient and that’s what ended up getting us those big points.”
Searching for stronger defensive play, it was a dig by libero Kendyl Sorge on a tip that helped spark UNI’s 13-2 run as the Panthers took control of set three.
That defensive intensity carried into set four as Weber sprinted and dove to prevent a tip from hitting the court and Thomas finished the point with a kill to keep UNI in front, 14-12.
“Sometimes we do have slow starts and not every team is going to be perfect, but we just talked about working and fighting through things,” Weber said. “That always helps having that energy and that fire, and to know your teammates are going to back you up and be there to help you pick up the next ball.”