NORMAL — The Illinois State volleyball team played at a high level, but Piper Thomas put No. 25 nationally ranked Northern Iowa on her back and flew to a 25-20, 24-26, 25-22, 25-15 victory in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament semifinals at Redbird Arena on Friday.
Those scores don’t reflect how long many rallies lasted.
“It was hard fought,” said ISU coach Leah Johnson. “It was strategic. It was back and forth. There were some phenomenal rallies. If you love the Redbirds and Illinois State, you’ve got nothing to hang your head about because this team gave us something to be proud of.”
The No. 3-seeded Redbirds fell to 21-12 while the No. 2-seeded Panthers improved to 26-7 ahead of Saturday’s 4 p.m. final against top-seeded Missouri State (27-5).
The Redbirds do not expect to hear their name called during Sunday’s 8 p.m. NCAA selection show. There is a strong possibility, however, they will receive a bid from the 32-team National Invitational Volleyball Championship.
UNI’s Thomas, seemingly wielding Thor’s hammer, pounded a match-high 28 kills, tying the seventh most in MVC tourney history. She had zero hitting errors in 47 swings as her .596 hitting percentage helped the Panthers outhit their host, .276 to .152.
“Every time she touched the ball, it was almost an automatic point,” lamented Johnson. “It is hard to play a match like that, to be so flawless. She did it and she did it confidently. Her team rallied behind her.”
Record-setting Redbird libero Courtney Pence did what she could to thwart Thomas, notching a match-high 33 digs, but it wasn’t enough.
“They came with guns a blazing,” said Johnson, whose team had split two earlier matches with UNI. “We haven’t seen them swing like that from all areas of the court this season.”
Pence noticed UNI set outside more than it did during its loss to ISU.
“This game they changed that a little bit,” she said. “They also changed their right side a lot and hit more from that side of the net.”
The high-flying Thomas blasted eight kills in set one to create a pattern that would repeat itself. The Redbirds managed ties at 6-6 and 16-16, but a 4-0 run gave the visitors a 20-16 cushion ISU couldn’t overcome. Karlie Taylor’s kill provided set point.
The second set featured 11 ties up to 17-17 when a Juma Armando kill sparked a 6-0 run for ISU. The Redbirds’ 23-17 lead dissolved into a 24-24 tie after a tip kill by UNI’s Heather Hook. Jaelyn Keene came to the rescue with back-to-back kills.
“We were more efficient that set,” Johnson said. “We took advantage scoring points when Piper was off the court. The other sets we weren’t able to string enough points together.”
Armando had six of her team-high 14 kills in the second set. Keene and Francis finished with 13 kills apiece.
In set three, the Redbirds fell into a 4-0 hole, but later forced six ties before a 3-0 surge pushed the Panthers out of reach at 22-19. Taylor, who finished with 16 kills, provided set point with a kill.
The fourth set saw UNI grab a 5-2 lead and it never let ISU score more than two consecutive points the rest of the way.
“The last time we were here, I think we had 36 attack errors (compared to 18 on Friday),” said UNI coach Bobbi Petersen. “They are so strong defensively. They are in and out of different defenses so it’s not just that they are great defensive players, but they read better than any team in the conference.”
Missouri State tops Indiana State: Four-time first-team all-Valley star Lily Johnson had 14 kills on .333 hitting to lead Missouri State to a 26-24, 25-15, 25-16 victory over No. 5 seed Indiana State (11-21).
Daniele Messa added 27 assists while Emily Butters and Johnson had 13 digs apiece for the Bears, who have beaten Northern Iowa twice this season.
Nikki White had 14 kills while Laura Gross had 10 kills and 15 digs for Indiana State, which was outhit, .324 to .148. Rachel Griffin chipped in 35 assists for the Sycamores.