Thanks to a banner weekend from Temi Thomas-Alaira, in which the true first-year outside hitter earned Big Ten Freshman of the Week for the second week in a row in the best volleyball conference in the country, Northwestern volleyball (7-2) went two for three in Durham this past weekend.
A straight-set loss to an impressive Georgia team (6-3) started the weekend off on the wrong foot, but a dominating win over Duke in the nightcap evened it out, before a record-breaking battle of a four set victory over American the next day put the Wildcats fully in the black once again.
Against the Dawgs, the Wildcats just never got much going. With defensive specialist Lexi Pitsas joining Michelle Lee on the injured list, coach Shane Davis was down his top two defensive specialists for the year, and it showed. Georgia’s team hitting percentage across the entire match was a whopping .393.
Thomas-Alaira led the ‘Cats with just 11 kills, though she also committed a team-high five attack errors. No other Northwestern player reached double digits in any category except for assists, with Payton Chang and Kiara McNulty each garnering just 12.
Things turned around quickly later in the day. Northwestern one-upped their early-game opponents by hitting at a .397 clip against the Blue Devils (5-5), rolling to an even easier three set win capped off any a dominating 25-13 clinching frame.
This time, Thomas-Alaira and veteran middle blocker Olivia Viscuso each had ten kills, with the latter doing it on a measly 16 total attacks. Thanks to limited overall opportunities, Viscuso is now up to second overall in the country among qualified players with a .576 season-long percentage.
Chang fully took over at setter for this one, cruising to 30 assists. Nia Robinson and Alana Walker combined for just thirteen kills, but each hit at a percentage of .400 or greater, and Walker dominated defensively with three solo and four assisted blocks. Little-used Allie Lindroth and Emily Ehman stepped into the void defensively, compiling 8 and 9 digs respectively.
Counter to the team success on display in the win over Duke, the matchup with American (5-5) largely became a one-woman show. After the Wildcats dropped the first set, Thomas-Ailara took over, running the Eagles into the ground. Northwestern won the next three sets by scores of 25-20, 25-23, and 28-26 to finish the tournament in satisfying fashion.
The first-year sensation turned in one of the greatest performances anywhere in the nation thus far in this young season, recording an unbelievable 32 kills despite just five attack errors for a .458 hitting percentage and adding a pair of blocks, two service aces (for five on the tournament) and 12 digs (for the double-double). The gaudy kill numbers set a Northwestern record both for first years and four set matches, while leaving her in second among all players in all games.
Robinson threw in 15 kills of her own, Lindroth had a team-leading 17 digs, and Chang finished with another 41 assists, but make no mistake about it: it was Thomas-Ailara’s heroics that ultimately won it. The Wildcats went to her over and over again down the stretch, and she got the job done just about every time.
Northwestern will remain in the Chicago area this week, taking on Loyola, UIC, and DePaul at the latter’s McGrath-Phillips Arena.