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After tough loss to Michigan State, Rutgers hosts No. 4 Illinois Saturday

Three points stood in the way of a Big Ten conference win for the Rutgers volleyball team on Wednesday night. 

The Scarlet Knights (6-24, 0-17) lost to Michigan State (17-13, 5-12), in a five-set match.

In the first set, the lead changed seven times with Rutgers even ahead by a point or two. The set was ultimately controlled by the Spartans, 28-26, after attack errors were made by senior outside hitter Sahbria McLetchie and sophomore right side Beka Kojadinovic.

A 6-1 run at the start of the second set gave Michigan State an edge that lasted the whole set. The Knights were unable to put together a run of their own and the Spartans closed the set on a 6-1 run, winning the set, 25-14.

Against most of the Big Ten, Rutgers typically falls behind in the third set, but it has continued to push through the set as the matches progress. The Knights started the set with a 5-0 run. 

When they racked up 3 or 4 points in a row, Michigan State would respond to catch right back up. Fortunately, Rutgers held the upper hand and won the set, 25-23, with 1 kill from freshman middle blocker Merle Weidt.

The Knights controlled an 8-1 in the fourth set. Even when the Spartans had to take a timeout during the middle of the run, Rutgers still managed to keep up its streak for 3 more points to take the lead, 14-9. From this point, Michigan State couldn’t score more than one consecutive point against the Knights, with the set ending in a dominant 25-16 win for Rutgers.

With a Big Ten win on the line, the Knights felt the pressure in the final fifth set. They went on a 6-1 run to take the lead by 4 points. The Spartans countered with a 5-0 run of their own to try and take control of the set. 

Rutgers challenged 2 points and got both calls overturned for a 4-point stint to take the lead, 9-8. Unfortunately, three attack errors toward the end of the set costed the Knights their victory over their opponent. The Spartans took the final set, 15-12.

“It's good to see ourselves competing,” said head coach CJ Werneke. “You've got to compete first before you can win, so now that we're competing more regularly in the twenties against our opponents and 20-all, that's just gaining valuable experience that we haven't been there before.”

Freshman outside hitter Tali Marmen fired up Rutgers’ offense with 12 kills on .500 hitting percentage. McLetchie hit a double-digit mark of her own with 10 kills, but put up a staggering 12 attack errors. 

On the defensive side, junior middle blocker Jasmine Stackhouse had 8 blocks against Michigan State. In doing so, Stackhouse joined the ranks of the Knights’ all-time top 10 list for blocks, and  added to her career-total of 274 blocks for tenth position. 

Rutgers alumnus Addie Thiry is ahead of Stackhouse with 294 blocks.

“We're getting there and gaining this experience,” Werneke said. “Now it's time to go, okay. We've been there. We've done that. Let's take the next step." 

The next match should be a tough one for the Knights as No. 4 Illinois (25-3, 14-3) arrives on the Banks for Saturday night’s match at the College Avenue Gymnasium.

Last time it played the Fighting Illini, Rutgers fought to score in the 20s and will be eyeing a set win on its home court. Illinois swept Northwestern in straight sets, 25-16, 25-11, 25-14, and will look to replicate those same results against the Knights this weekend.

“They are the best, you came here to play the best,” Werneke said. “To be your best, you've got to play the best, so let's go out there and see how much progress we've made this year and then catapult us into the spring.”

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

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