Instant (Illini) Classic
Aug. 30, 2008
Champaign, Ill. - After Friday's first match victory over North Carolina, Illinois Head Coach Don Hardin said his team was ready for the challenging schedule ahead. Even he couldn't imagine just how ready. After taking out No. 23 New Mexico State in four sets during the morning (24-26, 25-21, 25-19, 25-14), the Illini faced the tall task of defeating a seasoned no. 11 Oregon squad, coming off a Sweet 16 appearance, in what turned out to be the title match of the State Farm Illini Classic Saturday night.
After Oregon put on a clinic in sets one and two, the Illini rallied from way down to stun the Ducks, 14-25, 16-25, 26-24, 25-21, 15-13 to win their 18th title in the 25 years of the event.
"I think anyone who watched us in the first two sets wouldn't expect that kind of comeback and neither did I," Hardin said. "It was a real gut check because they beat us in every statistical category, including points scored."
The match was eerily similar to one four years ago. That night another highly-ranked Pac-10 opponent, top-ranked USC, invaded Huff in the Classic. That night the Women of Troy put on a similar performance in taking two of the first three sets, and winning every category, only to see the Illini prevail in a five-set thriller.
To put the stunner in perspective, Oregon tallied 8.5 blocks and hit .462 and .444, respectively, in the first two sets, while the Illini tallied no blocks and hit just .072 combined.
"We didn't panic," Hardin said. "We're in this to get better as a team. We started to get distracted by the score and by not winning, and we all felt together that we weren't executing the way we are capable."
Tournament MVP Laura DeBruler set fire as well with 22 of her match-high 31 kills in the final three sets. For the weekend, DeBruler had 65 kills, an average of 5.42 per set, and hit .302.
Illinois also adjusted its blocks and the back row defense refused to be penetrated. All-Tournament member Ashley Edinger had 20 digs and the Illini beat Oregon at its own game by out-blocking the Ducks 12-5.5 in the final three sets.
Even after an inspired Illinois team staved off the Ducks, 26-24 in set three, it seemed the Illini were headed for just one of those early season moral victories, but this team proved it's a breed apart. Illinois trailed 16-9 in the fourth set, but kept fighting. Four straight points brought the deficit back to a more manageable 16-13, but the Duck lead again reached five at 19-14. Talk about gut check. Illinois then rattled off 11 of the final 13 points to stave off what seemed to be a destined Oregon victory.
DeBruler and junior Kylie McCulley (12 kills) fired bullets from both the left side and back row. McCulley, the Illini's third representative on the All-Tournament team, had six kills in the fourth set and served six straight points to give Illinois the lead at 20-19. DeBruler had three kills in that stretch and McCulley scored an ace. In all, DeBruler accounted for six of Illinois' final nine points and nine kills overall in the improbable fourth-set comeback.
Bangert spearheaded the Illini block. After posting 12 block assists in the upset of NMSU, Bangert had eight in the comeback win over Oregon.
With Nelson having the hot serving hand, Illinois decided to start the fifth and deciding set with a rotation that had Nelson serving. That move worked as the Illini stormed in front 4-0. The lead reached 6-1 before the Ducks rattled off four straight points off the timeout. After Illinois pushed the lead to 13-10, Oregon scored three in a row to tie it at 13-13. A big swing from DeBruler off a perfect set from Lizzie Bazzetta gave the Illini set point where freshman Michelle Bartsch put away an overpass for the deciding point.
"I think for us overall we proved that we can come back and compete if we can just get back in our rhythm," DeBruler said of knocking off a pair of ranked opponents in the same day. "One of the things we focus on is just playing our game."
Gorana Maricic paced the Ducks with 16 kills. Neticia Enesi (nine block assists) and Sonja Newcombe (12 kills, 10 digs) represented Oregon on the all-tournament team.
The evening victory somewhat overshadowed the morning win over 23rd-ranked New Mexico State, a 26-6 team from a year ago. After narrowly dropping the first set, Illinois dominated the last three. DeBruler had 20 kills, giving her 51 kills in 120 swings for the day.
The middles provided offensive firepower paced by a career-best eight kills and a .667 attack percentage from Nelson and seven kills and a .429 clip from Bangert.
"I think the important thing for me was that we did improve over the course of the tournament," Hardin said. "With each challenge we had, we raised our level of play."
That challenge ladder only gets higher next weekend as Illinois travels to the Billikin Invitational in St. Louis to face among other teams, defending national runner-up Stanford. The Illini may do so with their first national ranking in four seasons.