Jocelynn Birks hit .449 with 25 kills vs. Cincinnati.
Cincinnati, Ohio - No. 20 Illinois got a career-high 25 kills from redshirt freshman Jocelynn Birks and out-blocked Cincinnati 12-6, but to had to fight off a determined Bearcat team in a 25-23, 25-17, 25-27, 25-22 victory in the first night of the Big Ten/Big East Challenge. Illinois improves to 3-3 ahead of Saturday's match against No. 24 Louisville, who defeated Purdue in straight sets in the first match of the evening.
Birks had a consistent night with seven kills in the first and third sets and nine kills in the fourth. She hit .449 with just three attack errors in 49 swings.
"(Setter) Annie (Luhrsen) and I just had a really good connection," Birks said of her night. "I was trying to swing high and it was working so I kept doing it. Once I got one kill I just wanted to keep getting more."
"Jocelynn can score; we've seen that all year," Illinois head coach Kevin Hambly said. "She carried us, but we relied on her way too much. We need to get more diversity in the offense."
Sophomore Morganne Criswell also had a solid night, hitting .296 with 12 kills in 27 swings. Illinois hit .314 as a team, committing just 13 attack errors in the four sets.
Cincinnati (1-7), however, playing in its first home match of the season, would not go down without a fight. Riding the arms of Jordanne Scott much of the night, the Bearcats built a big lead in the first set and overcame a late four-point deficit to win the third set. Scott finished the night with 18 kills while hitting .350. Megan Turner and Becca Refenes added 15 and 13 kills, respectively.
Cincinnati scored on its first six attacks of the first set in bolting to leads of 12-6 and 15-9 before the Illini came back to tie the set. at 16-16. As the passing improved, the Illini were able to get the ball successfully to the pins, where Birks had seven kills while hitting .500 in the set. The set was tied seven times late before Illinois took its first lead at 24-23. Liz McMahon had the set-winning point with a cross court shot. Scott had five kills in the early early going but the Illini were able to neutralize those down the stretch.
"We came out nervous," Hambly said of the first set. "It was a little like (the) Dayton (match) all over again. At least we pulled ourselves out."
Illinois was strong both offensively and defensively in pulling away in the second set. The Illini played the set without an attack error, hitting .375 for the set. Illinois also out-blocked the Bearcats, 5-0. Erin Johnson was in on four of those five blocks. That forced Cincinnati to hit .just .147 for the set.
It looked as if Illinois was going to win the match in the straight sets, coming back to lead 21-19 after trailing 8-4 at one point in the third set. However, Illinois had to fight off a pair of set points before Scott served up an ace to end it and send it to four. Scott also had a couple of crucial kills from the left side in the rally. Birks had seven points in the third set while hitting .428. The rest of the team combined to hit just .000. The Illini had six attack errors as a team after not having any in set two.
Birks had seven kills in Illinois' first 14 points of the fourth set as Illinois built a 14-12 lead. Johnson, who had a match-high nine blocks, came up with a big solo block to help the Illini extend that lead to 21-16. Like it had all night, Cincinnati came roaring back, cutting the deficit to 21-19 before Illinois finally put the match away.
"The things I liked about tonight was we were low error for the most part and at times we were a good blocking team," Hambly said. "But, we never got into a flow the whole match.. We have to keep getting better."