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    'Cats Claw Back and Topple Illinois, 3-2

    Oct. 23, 2013

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    Northwestern Northwestern 3, Illinois 2
    Welsh-Ryan Arena • Evanston, Ill. • Attendance: 1,071

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    EVANSTON, Ill. -- Facing a two-set deficit at the intermission for the fifth time this season, the Northwestern Wildcats dug deep and roared all the way back to knock off instate rival Illinois in five thrilling sets at Welsh-Ryan Arena Wednesday evening, 3-2 (19-25, 19-25, 25-19, 25-19, 15-10).

    The Wildcats moved to 5-1 in five-set affairs with the key conference victory; no Northwestern team coached by Keylor Chan has ever won as many maximum-length matches. This was also the third consecutive five-set fracas between NU and its instate rival.

    "We may have been down early, but we certainly weren't out," said a jubilant Chan after the win. "We went into the locker room and really challenged each other to play to the level that we know we're capable of. Every single person stepped up, believed in one another and found a way to earn a critical victory in conference play.

    "We've had a great stretch of battles against Illinois and we broke through and found a way to get the win tonight," added Chan. "I'm proud of how we fought and I'm proud of how we stuck together in the face of some adversity."

    Senior captain Stephanie Holthus was nothing short of remarkable for the 'Cats as they knocked off the Illini for the first time since Nov. 5, 2010, the All-American's freshman season. Holthus finished the match with a career-high-tying 28 kills for Chicago's Big Ten Team, with 18 of those terminations coming in the three sets that were won by Northwestern. She had four in the decisive fifth frame. The Elgin, Ill., native also chipped in with 11 digs to register her 11th double-double of the campaign.

    The Wildcats found themselves in a dark two-set hole after dropping the opening pair of stanzas by identical 25-19 scores. Northwestern was unable to generate a great deal of offensive rhythm as the Illini went on prolonged runs in both sets.

    The light bulb finally went on for the 'Cats in the third set and they came firing out of the gate. With Chicago native Caroline Niedospial serving for NU, the home team rushed out to a 7-2 advantage. The lead soon grew to six points, but the Orange and Blue hung around and eventually pulled to within three points at 16-13. Kills from Katie Dutchman and Holthus sandwiched around an ace by Monica McGreal created another cushion at 19-13 and the Wildcats went on to win their first set of the match, 25-19.

    The fourth frame had the Illini in the driver's seat with a 14-10 advantage before NU clawed its way back to the lead yet again. The Purple and White produced a 6-2 run to even the ledger and later grabbed an 18-17 lead when Illinois unleashed one of its 26 total attacking errors. Moments later another misfire by Illinois gave Northwestern a 20-19 advantage that it would not relinquish. In fact, Illinois wouldn't score again in the fourth with McGreal serving for the 'Cats. Holthus crushed back-to-back sets from Caleigh Ryan to seal a second straight 25-19 triumph and force the fifth game.

    NU took a quick 2-0 lead in the final set, but the visitors responded with a 5-1 run to grab a two-point lead of their own. With its offense seemingly stymied by the Illinois front line, and trailing 6-5, the Wildcats turned to their own blockers to score some precious points. Maggie Burnham and Ryan paired up to block not one, not two, but three straight attacks from Illinois' Morganne Criswell to give their team a coveted 8-6 lead. Burnham soon added a kill off a feed from Ryan to notch a three-point lead before Yewande Akanbi got in on the act with a ferocious solo block on Maddie Mayers. Fittingly, it was NU's lone senior, Holthus, who scored the final point of the match to tie her career high with 28 kills and, more importantly, give the 'Cats a 15-10 set win and a 3-2 match victory.

    Northwestern finished the match with 14 blocks, five of which came in the fifth set. Ryan set a new career-best mark with five blocks, while Holthus and Burnham tied their previous bests from this year with four and six, respectively.

    The Wildcats accumulated 79 digs in the Big Ten battle with a team-high 25 coming off the hands of the libero, Niedospial. The redshirt sophomore also added a pair of assists and a pair of aces in the win. Ryan, the Big Ten's leader in assists, tallied a career-high 15 digs and added 58 helpers to notch her sixth double-double of the season.

    Dutchman buried 14 kills Wednesday and Savannah Paffen killed 10 balls and added a match-high seven blocks, one shy of her own career high.

    With 28 kills against Illinois, Holthus moved into second place on Northwestern's all-time list with 1,628 kills. The 2012 All-American needs only 39 more to become the program's all-time leader in that category.

    Northwestern will return to the road once again this weekend for a Sunday matinee against the Minnesota Golden Gophers in Minneapolis. Sunday's match will be the lone regular-season contest between the 'Cats and the seventh-ranked Gophers, who lost to Wisconsin, 3-1, Wednesday night. The first serve from the Sports Pavilion is set for 1 p.m. on Oct. 27.


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