Khavon Thomas | Northern Star
At a glance
Huskies move over .500 with three games remaining
NIU has won four of last six with MAC tournament approtching
Freshman Atiemo continues to shine with dozen kills
DeKALB — The NIU volleyball team won back-to-back games for the first time since the middle of September, defeating the University of Akron Zips Saturday in three straight sets.
“I think the team did a very good job of playing together,” head coach Ray Gooden said. “Having to play back-to-back games in our last road trip and to grind out this one against a scrappy team like Akron, as we’re all fighting to stay in the mix in the Mid-American Conference tournament, I thought our group did a solid job.”
The Huskies, 13-12 overall and 7-8 in the MAC, had a collective effort in the match on the offensive end. Freshman middle blocker Charlie Atiemo led the way with 12 kills on an efficient 43% hitting. Junior outside hitter Katie Jablonski had 10 kills for the match, while junior setter Ella Mihacevic and junior middle blocker Jasmine Kemp each added in nine kills, respectively.
Junior setter Grace Balensiefer got a double-double on the day, with 38 assists along with 13 digs. The Huskies defense performed at a high level, totaling 64 digs total for the entire match. Freshman libero Francesa Bertucci had 17, while junior defensive specialist Samantha Juarez finished with 13.
NIU hit for a combined 47 kills for a 21% hitting compared to the Zips 37 kills on just 11% hitting for the entire match.
The Huskies got an all-around performance from the team, something coach Gooden attests to the team’s mindsets coming into the game.
“I think tonight was a definite change for us and our mindsets,” Gooden said. “I think we did good things not only from a volleyball standpoint but for each other that really helped us get a good team victory.”
The Huskies started off the first set with a 4-1 lead on back-to-back kills by Kemp and Mihacevich to go along with two attack errors by the Zips. The Zips stormed back and scored on the next five possessions to take a 6-5 lead. The Huskies responded with a 5-1 run to take a three-point lead.
The teams traded possessions back and forth until the Huskies broke through with another five straight points to take a commanding 17-11 lead. Even with a slight comeback at the end by Akron, NIU was able to hold them off to win the set 25-21.
The second set was a competitive one. There were a total of five lead changes, of which three came in the final possessions of the set.
With the score tied at 23-23, Akron graduate student right-side hitter Alexis Adelta got a kill, giving the Zips a one-point lead.
Coach Gooden knew his team wouldn’t waver, even with a set point looming over them.
“We keep fighting and continue to play together,” Gooden said. “When we are a unit, and all 15 are in, we do a great job with our effort from those in the squares and outside of them.”
The Huskies would rally off three straight points to clinch the set 26-24 and take a commanding 2-0 set lead.
The third and final set of the match was another close one. The score was tied for much of the set until the Huskies pulled away from an 8-8 tie by scoring seven of the next nine possessions to take a 15-10 lead.
The Zips slowly chipped away at the Huskies lead, eventually cutting it down to two at 21-19.
The Huskies eventually were able to close out the Zips with Atiemo and Jablonski each putting down two kills, respectively, winning the set 25-22 to end the match.
The Huskies currently sit fourth in the west division and sixth overall MAC standings, with the top eight teams making it to the tournament. NIU will look to improve on its playoff positioning with the regular season ending Nov. 17.
The Huskies will return to action 6 p.m. Friday when they take on the University at Buffalo for a home game at Victor E. Court.