NORMAL — The Illinois State volleyball team is learning more about first-year coach Leah Johnson’s system every day.
On Saturday, the Redbirds’ education went into extra innings as they split a pair of five-set matches to finish second in the Redbird Classic.
After losing to Seton Hall, ISU (4-5) bounced back to win a thriller over Cincinnati. That left three teams tied at 2-1 in the round-robin, but Dayton won based on a better set differential as Seton Hall took third and Cincinnati fourth. The Redbirds could have won if they had beaten the Bearcats in three sets.
“It was a grind, but a pleasant grind because we have to keep getting better,” said Johnson after a 25-14, 25-21, 24-26, 22-25, 16-14 win over Cincinnati (1-8). “You will hear me say that all year long.
“To be put in tough moments, that is the (Missouri) Valley every single night. So we’re getting an opportunity to get our freshmen, in particular our setter (Stef Jankiewicz), experience with that. Every single time we’re learning something.”
Earlier Saturday, ISU learned it needs to take risks after suffering a 17-25, 25-21, 17-25, 26-24, 17-15 loss to Seton Hall (6-3).
"We need to be the ones taking care of the ball and making the best decisions; taking the biggest risks and I thought this afternoon Seton Hall took the biggest risks," Johnson said.
The Redbirds placed Jaelyn Keene and Juma Armando on the all-tournament team, which included Cincinnati’s Carly Nolan, Seton Hall’s Abby Thelen and the Dayton trio of Amber Erhahon, Jane Emmenecker and Margo Wolf. Erhahon was named the tourney MVP.
The fifth set was tied at 14-14 when Keene, nursing a minor ankle injury, blasted the last of her 21 kills. She hit a match high .347 to help the Redbirds outhit the Bearcats, .172 to .106.
“I was really proud of the team,” said Johnson, who got 15 kills from Armando and 14 from Lexi Wallen while Jankiewicz provided 57 assists and Courtney Pence 28 digs.
Johnson saw more urgency from Cincinnati than she’d seen from the Bearcats on film.
“Their backs were against the wall and they became a different team,” Johnson said. “It was more about us even though they played great.”
Playing the best for Cincy were Nolan and Elly Ogle, who each had 15 kills while Chrysanth Stamatiou added 12.
“They took advantage of what Seton Hall did to beat us,” Johnson said. “They tried to exploit us on the pins. They were setting the high outside ball; setting the ball to the right.
“Every time they swung at Stef, they won that point a lot, not because of the defense, but we can’t transition out of it, either. They took two of our weapons away and avoided Courtney.”
ISU seemed destined to sweep the Bearcats in three sets when it went built an 8-2 lead in the third. Cincy fought back to force ties at 19, 20, 21, 23 and 24 before a kill by Ogle and a net violation by Jankiewicz forced a fourth set.
Jankiewicz and Co. ultimately prevailed thanks to Keene.
“I think the other teams have caught on to what a big point scorer she really is,” Jankiewicz said. “I can still look to her to score points. She will break through that block and she will find a way. It’s great to have a senior like her on the team to push me harder as a setter.”
"They swung for power almost every single time and I think too many times we decided to tip," Johnson said after the Seton Hall match. "When we were swinging, we were scoring."
The Redbirds actually outscored Seton Hall, 80-77. Keene nearly willed the hosts to victory by notching 19 kills on .424 hitting, but Thelen picked the Redbirds apart with 22 kills.
The revelation of the match for ISU was the emergence of Armando, a senior transfer from Chicago State.
The 5-foot-11 outside hitter from Toronto, who had only appeared in three of her team’s 25 previous sets, entered the match in the second set and proceeded to hammer 15 kills in just 30 swings for a .433 hitting percentage.
Johnson had been holding Armando out so she could adjust to the Redbirds' fast pace and find her blocking rhythm.
"We know she can score points and she did that," Johnson said. "She's been showing that in practice. We found her some opportunities last weekend, which made her prepared this weekend to come in and be a standout."
Armando was head-and-shoulders above everyone else in the third set when she had seven kills on .538 hitting. She credited competitive practices for making her match ready.
"We compete all the time," Armando said. "Practices help because we're so competitive. Playing against the best defender in the NCAA (Pence) helps because she always keeps me going. I have to work harder to score."
Seton Hall seemed to steer clear of Pence, who came in averaging an NCAA-leading 7.08 digs per set. She still managed 25 digs. Lexi Varga added 10 kills on .368 hitting for ISU, which received 56 assists from Jankiewicz.
Ultimately, ISU had no answer for the 6-1 Thelen, who took 60 swings.
"She lit us up in our blocking scheme," Johnson said. "For as big as they are, you think they are going to swing really high. They had a great approach. They kept swinging low at our elbows.
"They obviously scouted us last night and saw we're a good blocking team, but that's one way to exploit a swing block and they did a great job."
ISU had no blocks while losing the second set, and lost the overall block battle, 12-8.
"I just think with experience, we're going to blend a lot better," said Keene, whose team dug out of an 11-7 hole in the fifth set to force ties at 12, 14 and 15.
A kill by Thelen put Seton Hall ahead to stay before a Caitlin Koska kill ended the match.
The Redbirds were two points away from winning the match in the fourth set after digging out of a 19-15 hole. The dramatic end game saw ties at 22, 23 and 24 before Ella Francis hit out of bounds prior to a game-winning kill by Thelen.