Illini Outlast No. 17 Kentucky in Five-Set Thriller
Sep 1, 2013
Long Beach, Calif. – The University of Illinois volleyball team defeated its second ranked opponent in as many days this evening, matching up against No. 17 Kentucky in the Illini’s final match at the Long Beach State Mizuno Invitational. Kentucky won the first set then took a 2-1 match lead, but Illinois came back to win the final two sets to defeat the ranked Wildcats, 3-2 (20-25, 25-19, 22-25, 25-19, 15-9). With the win, the Illini finish the weekend 2-1, while Kentucky drops to 0-2.
“This time of year, I want to learn how to compete and learn how to fight and I thought we did that,” said Head Coach Kevin Hambly. “It’s nice to get two wins and come home 2-1; it would’ve been nice to get three of course, but I think we’re learning a lot about ourselves and a lot about the team. I always say you don’t learn anything about yourself until you’re in a fight, and we were in some fights. One of them we got our butt kicked and the other one we came out on top, so we did what we needed to do.”
Sophomore outside hitter Jocelynn Birks registered her second 20-kill match of the year, putting up 22 kills in the match to go along with seven digs. Redshirt freshman Maddie Mayers had another fantastic match at middle blocker, hitting .458 with 13 kills and nine blocks, sitting just one block shy of a double-double. Anna Dorn returned to the starting lineup and certainly proved she belonged there, stabbing six kills on seven swings and stuffing six blocks. Liz McMahon struggled offensively in the match, but was a force to be reckoned with at the net, recording her third career double-digit block match with 10, including six in the second set alone, to help the Illini put up a total of 16.0 in the match.
Morganne Criswell earned significant playing time as the match went on, subbing in at outside when her teammates were struggling. She hit .375 with four kills up front and provided solid defense including a flawless performance on serve receive.
“We had to fight, and we’ve been talking all year about having versatility to make changes, and we made a change down 2-1 and put Morganne out there on the left and Lizzie on the right and it was good to see the team embrace that and that there was no panic,” said Hambly. “I liked that the team continued to fight and play with determination, and I’m not sure that we’ve seen that so far. We won a match, we’ve won close sets, but not with the kind of determination that we played with tonight.
“I’m hoping we’ve learned from it and we can move ahead and understand what that means, because that’s essentially the way we have to play the rest of the year. We have 27 matches left in the regular season and to win every single one of them, we have to be able to compete our butts off, and so I hope we’ve learned that.”
Senior libero Jennifer Beltran was a difference-maker in the back row, tallying 17 key digs, and Ali Stark added an additional 11. Alexis Viliunas registered 50 assists at setter and added eight digs from the back row.
Defensive specialist Courtney Abrahamovich was one of four Illini to record aces in the match, as the senior nailed the second perfect serve of her career.
Across the court, two-time All-American Whitney Billings played the match of her life, registering a career-high 26 kills to go along with 13 digs and three blocks. Setter Morgan Bergren added six blocks, six digs, five kills and two aces to her 50 assists, and Sara Schwarzwalder put up seven kills and seven blocks.
“Billings was really good, she was outstanding,” said Hambly. “She gave us a ton of trouble and I’m not sure we did anything to stop her. Until the end—Lex dug her and Jocelynn put up a block and I think that was the difference in the match.”
The same trio teamed up for five blocks in the first set to help lead the Wildcats to victory in the frame, but the Illini offense adjusted through the remainder of the match, as Kentucky had just 5.5 through the final four sets, allowing Illinois to out-block UK, 16.0-10.5 on the night.
With the non-stop block party, neither team attacked with a very high efficiency, but Illinois still out-hit UK .221 to .169.
“They’re a big, physical team and they’ll have a great year,” said Hambly. “The fact that they’re 0-2 is ridiculous, because they’re an outstanding team. It’s going to be a big win for us.”
Kentucky ran away with the score early in the first, and despite a late regrouping by the Illini, Illinois was unable to overcome the early 11-5 deficit, dropping the first set, 25-20.
The Illini rebounded quickly in the second set, jumping out to an 8-2 lead and extending it to 12-3, with the help of eight blocks as a team, including six from McMahon. Kentucky did not go quietly, making a late run in the frame, but the Orange and Blue hung on to win 25-19 and tie the match at one set apiece.
“I thought Lizzie made a huge difference in the second set and actually turned the match around with her blocks,” Hambly said. “I think she set the tone and I thought Anna and Maddie did a nice job of closing blocks. Not only did they stuff balls, but they created a lot of opportunities for us. I thought (Assistant Coach) Dan (Conners) did a great job of making calls and putting them in the right position and the girls executed.”
Kentucky took an early 5-1 lead in the third set, but Illinois hung tough to tie the score at 10. Kentucky went back ahead 12-10, but the Illini won three straight to take their first lead of the set, 13-12. Illinois continued to hold onto a small lead, pushing up 15-13, when a media timeout was called. Kentucky regrouped during the break and came back firing, using a 6-0 run to take a 22-17 lead. A service error by Viliunas made it set point Wildcats, but a matching service error by Jackie Napper gave the ball back to the Illini. Illinois erased three set points, but Kentucky finally closed out the set, 25-22, on the 15th kill by Billings.
The fourth set was neck and neck throughout the first half, with an Illinois 6-4 lead being the only multi-point advantage through the first 24 plays. However, after trailing 11-12, the Illini went on a 4-0 run based on three errors by Kentucky, and the Wildcats never recovered, as the Illini went on to win the frame, 25-19, and send the match to the tie-breaking fifth.
As it often does, the fifth set began extremely tight and soon the score was tied at five. The Illini then capitalized on three-straight Wildcat attack errors to take an 8-5 lead, and just as in the fourth, Kentucky was unable to bounce back, as the Illini closed out the set, 15-9, to take the match, 3-2.
It may have helped that the Illini have plenty of experience in those tiebreaking sets, having set a new school record in 2012 with 13 of their 30 matches needing a fifth set to crown a winner. The Illini were victorious in just five of those 13 matches, but are off to a strong start in 2013.
Illinois returns to the Midwest for the next tournament, heading to Ames, Iowa, for the Iowa State Challenge on Sept. 7-8. The Illini will face San Diego at Noon on Saturday then take on the host Cyclones, who were ranked 15th in the AVCA Preseason Poll, at 2 p.m. on Sunday. Sunday’s match can be heard live on WDWS 1400 AM and Iowa State will stream live video of the match.