At this point in the season, with the NCAA Tournament looming, Michigan needed a statement win. The Wolverines did just that on Wednesday night, dominating Illinois in all facets of the match on their way to a 3-1 victory.
“We went into it with the mentality of a revenge game,” sophomore outside hitter Jess Mruzik said. “We lost in four at their place, so beating them in four at our place is a sweet victory for us.”
Michigan (17-11 overall, 10-9 Big Ten) got off to a fiery start against No. 23 Illinois (19-11, 11-8). The Wolverines scored eight of the first 10 points of the game. It seemed like Michigan could do no wrong, and the team continued to pile on the points behind solid serving by senior outside hitter Paige Jones. The consistent connections between sophomore setter Scottee Johnson, Jones and Mruzik proved too much for Illinois in the first, as Michigan coasted to a 25-17 first-set victory.
“It’s about execution, and it’s about the players,” Michigan coach Mark Rosen said. “We work every day on executing what we’re trying to do offensively, defensively, serving, and we executed really well in the first set. We were super clean. We knew it wasn’t gonna be that easy all night though.”
The second set appeared to be a continuation of the first, but the Wolverines squandered a 5-1 lead behind a solid Illini run. The two teams continued to trade points in lock step, each one taking turns going on short scoring runs. Illinois managed to take its first lead late in the set — and even had a set point — but the Wolverines took the set to overtime. On the back of a Jones kill and a tight-angled shot by Mruzik, Michigan managed to claim the second set.
“(Mruzik) doesn’t overwhelm you with power or hit these unbelievable shots that blow you away,” Rosen said. “She just has the steadiest approach. She hit an amazing cross-court shot at the end of set two. Not a lot of kids her age can do that.”
Behind its consistent, error-free gameplan, Michigan again found itself in the driver’s seat late in the third set. Up 23-22, the Wolverines had victory in their sights, but the Illini refused to be shut out. Illinois showed off their high-powered offense, rattling off three quick points and decisively closing out the set.
Michigan was able to refocus, and the final set never appeared in doubt. The Illini did not manage to take the lead a single time in the fourth set, and it appeared the Wolverines had one thing on their minds — an NCAA Tournament berth.
“One thing we talked a lot about the last few days is being able to play for something,” Rosen said. “We’re trying to get in the NCAA Tournament — that’s a big focus — and so tonight was a big, big part of that. They all mean a lot, but at this point in the season, it’s kinda crunch time, and I think (the team) really likes that.”
Michigan has proven when it is firing on all cylinders, it is a force to be reckoned with. Consistency will be what wins the Wolverines games on the biggest stage. Without it, an early exit is in the cards.