Illini Sweep No. 20 UNC to Complete a Perfect Weekend
Aug. 30, 2014
Champaign, Ill. - The Fighting Illini captured their third straight three-set victory this evening, knocking off No. 20 North Carolina to capture the Illini Classic title without dropping a set. The previously unbeaten Tar Heels fall to 2-1, while the Illini finish opening weekend a flawless 3-0.
"It feels awesome, especially against North Carolina after they swept us last year," said Ali Stark, who led the Illini in kills tonight. "It's really exciting to come out and beat them in three."
Senior Liz McMahon was named the most valuable player of the tournament after leading all players with a .426 hitting percentage on the weekend, while classmate Anna Dorn led all teams with 11 blocks, moving up to ninth all-time in career block assists (396) and 11th in total blocks (410).
"It's great to start out our season like this, at home, with a great crowd all weekend," said Dorn. "It gives us momentum going into three away weekends coming up. It's pretty tough to play on the road, especially in some of these preconference tournaments when there's not a lot of energy in the gym, and I think that there's a lot to be said for having a lot of confidence going into those weekends.
"Next weekend we're going to be at Stanford and playing some top-10 teams so the fact that we have some experience under our belt from at home and to have those victories is really going to give us more of an edge."
The Illini setters spread the ball around, with the Illini pin hitters each having nearly identical kills, led by Stark and Jocelynn Birks with eight apiece, followed by Morganne Criswell with seven and McMahon with six, hitting .429. Illinois' middles did not commit an error, as Dorn was 4-for-7 and Katie Stadick went 2-for-5.
"Allison did a really great job with the tempo, making it really quick," said Stark, "and I think that kind of caused a little confusion with them because our middles were doing a great job and so it opened up opportunities for me."
The Illini front line stuffed a total of 10 blocks in the match, led by Dorn with seven, while McMahon put up four and Stadick added three. Libero Brandi Donnelly led the back line with 10 digs, followed by Birks with nine, who also added two aces.
"I thought we played really good defense," said head coach Kevin Hambly. "We struggled with SIU [this morning]. They had a really tough tempo and we did not do a good job on defense. You could see they came out early [tonight] and really shut down [Chaniel Nelson] in the first two sets; she didn't have a kill. I thought we did a great job on her and that took the wind out of their sails a little bit. And same with Paige [Neuenfeldt], she was one of the people we had voted for All-Tournament coming into it and she had one kill."
Leigh Andrews led the Tar Heel attack with 10 kills, but hit just .031 as the Illini defense held UNC to .079 on the night. Abigail Curry tallied 12 assists and Ece Taner led the match with 16 digs.
North Carolina won the first two points of the match, but a sequence of attack errors culminating in a Stadick-Birks block put Illinois on top 5-2. The Illini extended their lead to 10-4 on a Criswell kill and 14-8 on a swing from Dorn, but the Tar Heels battled back, winning eight of the next 10 points to tie the score at 16 on a Gearhart ace. A key kill by Stark kept the Illini from falling behind, and five UNC errors on the final six plays of the set allowed Illinois to take a 1-0 lead with a 25-19 win in the first.
The Illini won the first three points of the second set and never looked back, soon pulling ahead to 19-11 and claiming the second set, 25-17. Illinois put up five blocks in the set, including three by Dorn, and Stark had four kills on seven swings to power the Orange and Blue to a 2-0 lead at the break.
Neither team had a strong hold on the third set early in the frame, but a key block by Dorn and McMahon helped Illinois to an 11-8 advantage. UNC pushed back to tie the score at 11, and things would remain knotted until they were once again tied at 19-19. Back-to-back kills by McMahon gave Illinois a two-point lead, but a McPherson-McAdoo block tied the score at 23. However, Criswell then came through in the clutch for the Illini, slamming the door on the match with a pair of kills to win the set 25-23 and claim the ninth-straight set victory for Illinois.
Following the match, a seven-player All-Tournament Team was announced, headlined by Most Valuable Player Liz McMahon, who was joined by teammates Birks and Criswell. Tar Heels Leigh Andrew and Chaniel Nelson each earned a nod, along with Long Beach State libero Tyler Jackson and SIU middle blocker Taylor Pippen.
The Illini face a big test next weekend, when they travel to Northern California for the Big Ten/Pac-12 Challenge, hosted by No. 3 Stanford. Illinois will open the weekend against UCLA on Friday, Sept. 5, at 10:30 p.m. CT, who the Illini last faced in the 2011 National Championship, then take on the host Cardinal at 1 p.m. CT on Sunday, Sept. 7. Both matches will air live on the Pac-12 Network.