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Wildcat volleyball earns two impressive wins in first tournament hosted at new Welsh-Ryan

Northwestern’s thrilling weekend also marked a milestone for the program.

After finally being able to play at their revamped home arena for the first time in nearly two years late last season, Shane Davis and Northwestern athletics have quickly moved to try and make the venue a volleyball hotspot.

The inaugural NU Under Armour Challenge went off without a hitch, and though the rapidly improving Wildcats (5-1) fell to a veteran Stephen F. Austin team (6-0) that has won 35 of their last 36 matches to close out the tournament, their overall run was definitely impressive.

A youth-laden Northwestern team opened up the weekend by taking on a rebuilding Austin Peay team on Friday morning, and, despite dropping a set, dominated overall en route to an easy victory. The Governors (1-5) were held under 18 points in each of the three sets they lost, with the Wildcats imposing their will down the stretch.

Behind 18 kills on a strikingly efficient .395 hitting percentage from true first year Temi Thomas-Ailara, who was the most effective Wildcat outside hitter all tournament long, Northwestern impressed offensively. Nia Robinson and Olivia Viscuso each put up double-digit kills as well.

With starting libero Michelle Lee sidelined thanks to a knee injury, junior Lexi Pitsas stepped up to record a team-leading 16 digs, also garnering three assists to add to grad transfer setter Payton Chang’s 43. Defensive specialist Amy Wang added 11 digs of her own.

The nightcap, against a Texas Tech team that entered the weekend undefeated, proved much more challenging. Northwestern battled through a grueling, nearly three hour long extravaganza, but in the end just got over the top despite the herculean efforts of the Red Raiders (4-3) and star six-rotation hitter Emily Hill.

Losing more overall points than Texas Tech, and struggling at times to compete early even in the sets they ended up winning, the Wildcats had to gut out a victory behind more impressive offense from Thomas-Ailara. She and Robinson led the team with 19 kills each, as Ella Grbac, who did not play against Peay, added a crucial 15 of her own along with four assisted blocks.

After losing the first set 25-21 despite an incredible run of four consecutive aces from Thomas-Ailara (who finished the match with a near-unbelievable seven), the Wildcats ground out a 27-25 second set victory despite trailing early on.

Northwestern immediately put themselves in another hole, falling 25-21 in set three, before again coming back to claim the penultimate set 25-23 thanks in part to the introduction of Kiara McNulty at setter. Headed into the game’s final act, with the clock approaching 10 p.m. and both teams feeling the effects, the Wildcats gutted it out 16-14 thanks to a late run of points spearheaded by Robinson, their senior leader:

Overall, Northwestern finished with a whopping 11 aces and 13 blocks, six of them assisted on by Viscuso. Pitsas once again accounted for 16 crucial digs.

For the Red Raiders, Hill, one of the best players in the Big 12 and the current nationwide leader in kills, accounted for an otherworldly 33 of them in the loss, setting a personal best. She had a hitting percentage of .386, throwing in 12 digs to tie for the team lead and give her a double-double for good measure.

On Saturday, the Wildcats, despite the energy they expended Friday night, managed to take a set from the Lady Jacks, but not much more. Stephen F. Austin smothered their attack to the tune of 17 blocks over just four sets, and Northwestern never could fully get going.

Thomas-Ailara led the way once more with 18 kills. Her phenomenal overall performance got her named to the All-Tournament team for the second straight weekend, and earned her first Big Ten Freshman of the Week award. However, only she and Robinson, who made 13 attacking errors, had more than five kills. Pitsas added to her tournament total with 15 digs, while McNulty added 11 more and accounted for 31 assists.

With the long, but uplifting weekend in the rearview mirror, the Wildcats head to Durham, where they will face two power conference foes in Georgia and Duke on Friday before taking on American to close out the tournament the next day.