Rutgers drops matches to No. 4 Illinois, Northwestern on road

Following a shutout last weekend against No. 8 Nebraska, the Rutgers volleyball team took one set against Northwestern, but ultimately fell, 3-1, and dropped a straight set loss to No. 4 Illinois over the weekend. 

The Scarlet Knights' (6-23, 0-16) 3-1 defeat to the Wildcats (15-13, 5-11) marks the first time they have captured a set against the Evanston, Ill. school since their inaugural season in the Big Ten conference in 2014.

Before playing Northwestern on Saturday, Rutgers began its short road trip in Champaign, Ill. to face off against the Fighting Illini, Friday evening. In a 3-0 loss, the Knights did not allow Illinois to score more than 4 points in a row during the first set. In the middle of the set, Rutgers went on a run to cut the lead by two, but couldn't take the lead.

The Knights were fired up in the second set, controlling a 9-5 lead against the Illini. But, Illinois felt the pressure and mounted a 4-0 run, tying up the score at nine. The lead went back and forth until the end of the set where the Illini could only score 1 or 2 points at a time. 

Like the previous set, Rutgers wasn’t able to find that edge over its opponent and fell in the second set 22-25.

Appearing out of sorts, the Knights didn’t replicate the same drive at the start of the match. Illinois racked up a 9-3 lead, setting up an 8-1 run to carry a resounding 25-11 win in the third and final set.

“This past weekend, against both teams, our serving was really well,” said head coach CJ Werneke. “Did a really good job following the game plan serving-wise. I thought we played at a really high level and executed the game plan really well against Illinois. That just proves to our team what they're capable of.”

Recording 12 kills, two digs and two blocks, senior outside hitter Sahbria McLetchie capped a 21.9 hitting percentage to lead the Rutgers’ offense. Sophomore right side Beka Kojadinovic had 8 kills, six digs, two blocks and the only two service aces of the night.

Entering the Wildcats' Welsh-Ryan Arena, the Knights tallied 58 digs, compared to their opponent's 56. They improved their 2.68 blocks per set, which as of last week, ranks them 20th nationally. 

Rutgers started the match with a 15-14 lead over Northwestern before the Wildcats controlled a 4-0 run, finishing the first set 25-20.

In the second set, Northwestern controlled an 8-1 run. The Knights responded with a 4-0 spurt of their own, bringing them within one point of the Wildcats. Unfortunately for Rutgers, Northwestern was able to get the edge in the end to capture the second set 25-17.

Over the season, most of the Knights' third set scoring chances were few, but against the Wildcats, they made it the highlight of the night. With 12 ties and five lead changes, Rutgers tied it at 20.

Northwestern made three errors to give the Knights the edge for a 4-0 clip to close the set with a kill from Kojadinovic 25-21.The Wildcats took a stronghold on the final set, highlighted by a 7-1 run to defeat Rutgers 25-14 in that set.

“We didn't play our best against Northwestern and to know that we still took a set, not playing our best should tell our team improvement is happening,” Werneke said. “It's not like we're tapped out or maxed out, so taking a set while not even playing our best shows that we have some grit and could still accomplish some good things.”

As the only senior, McLetchie asserted her consistency throughout the Northwestern match. She registered her fifth career double-double, notching 13 kills and 10 digs. McLetchie also recorded her 50th career double-digit kill.

Freshman right side Anastasiya Kudryashova recorded 7 kills and five digs of her own on a .227 hitting percentage.

The Knights will be back on the court Wednesday at the College Avenue Gymnasium, as they play Michigan State at 7 p.m. before concluding their season facing three top-10 teams in the nation, No. 4 Illinois, No. 8 Wisconsin and No. 3 Minnesota.

For updates on the Rutgers volleyball team, follow @TargumSports on Twitter.

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