Ali Stark led the Illini defense with 11 digs to go along with two aces.
Sep 8, 2013
Ames, Iowa - The No. 18 Illinois volleyball team cruised past No. 11 Iowa State this afternoon in the final match of the Iowa State Challenge. The Illini got off to a slow start in the first set, but pulled out a comeback victory in the frame, then went on to sweep the Cyclones, 3-0 (25-23, 25-19, 25-16). Illinois improves to 3-2 on the season, with all three victories coming against ranked opponents, while the Cyclones drop their second straight, falling to 4-2.
The Fighting Illini hit a season-best .303 in the match, while holding the host Cyclones to just .114. Illinois also had a season-high eight service aces in the match, led by senior Courtney Abrahamovich with three, along with two each by Liz McMahon and Ali Stark.
"Iowa State served really tough," said Head Coach Kevin Hambly. "We hit .300, which is a good number and what you want to hit, but we sided out at 56% and we scored at 60% which is not great volleyball to watch. It was a good defensive match, a good defensive struggle. It felt like an old Big Ten basketball game... just grinding it out and being physical. The good thing is that we can win matches like that, we have the ball control as far as the defensive control to give us that."
Sophomore Jocelynn Birks paced the Illini with 11 kills and eight digs, while McMahon and Maddie Mayers each had nine kills. Mayers, the Big Ten Freshman of the Week, hit .643 in the match and contributed to all eight of the team's blocks.
"I thought we blocked well, we hit well," Hambly said. "I thought Lex did a really good job today, especially with the passing. It was the difference today compared to yesterday."
In addition to the pair of aces, Stark led the Illini defense with 11 digs, and setter Alexis Viliunas registered 29 assists, seven digs and three blocks.
"She's a great right side blocker and she plays tremendous defense," Hambly said of Stark. "It's really picked up over the last couple of weeks. She's one of the best passers in the league. We struggle at times on serve receive like we did today, but any time the ball got to her, things settled down. I think she's one of the most well-rounded volleyball players I've ever coached."
"Coach Hambly has definitely asked a lot more out of me in the back row for sure, helping out (Jennifer Beltran) defensively as much as I can," said Stark. "We're definitely using our voices and being loud on who's got it. If it's nice and high, Beltran will take it, but if it's low on my side, I'll get it."
Iowa State right side hitter Mackenzie Bigbee led the match with 14 kills and Caitlin Nolan had an impressive five service aces, three of which came in one serving run. Senior libero Kristen Hahn extended her school record double-digit dig streak to 46 matches with a match-high 13.
"We played patiently," said Hambly. "We realized that we can score points just by getting rallies from them. We played that style and I thought that was the difference."
Illinois had the upper hand early in the first set, as an ace by Abrahamovich made it 7-5 Illinois. A kill by Jenelle Hudson launched a 5-1 run for the Cyclones who took over the lead, 10-8. Stark stopped the bleeding with a kill to help re-tie the score at 10, but a run served out by Knuth put Iowa State back out in front 14-10. The Illini hung tough and another Abrahamovich ace tied the score at 17. Hudson helped push the Cyclones back up 20-17, but the Illini did not back down, winning the next five straight with the help of an ace by Viliunas to take a 22-20 lead. An Iowa State attack error made it set point Illini, 24-21, but the Cyclones would not go quietly, erasing two Illini chances to cut the deficit to one. However, it was Birks who would have the final say, smashing a kill to give Illinois the opening set, 25-23.
"We knew that we had to dig deep and take it one point at a time, not looking too far, not dwelling on the past," said Stark. "It was just exciting, and the more and more that we came back, the more energy we had to finish."
The score was back and forth early in the second set, with Iowa State taking the first lead, 7-5. However, a solid serving run by Birks put Illinois ahead 11-7, backed by three points each by Mayers and McMahon. Iowa State stayed tough, pulling back within one, 11-10, but Illinois pushed right back out, 16-11, and went on to take the set, 25-19, to grab a 2-0 lead in the match.
The Orange and Blue began the third ahead 4-2, but a 6-0 run with the help of three Nolan aces gave Iowa State a quick 8-4 advantage. The Illini stayed with it, and with the help of a few Cyclone errors, Illinois pushed back in front 14-11 and never looked back, cruising to a 25-16 win in the final frame to complete the sweep of the nationally-ranked Cyclones.
"Everyone was giving a great effort," Stark said. "We were determined and relentless to pull off this win."
Illinois hosts its home opener next Friday, Sept. 13, when a pair of top 10 teams come to Huff Hall for the Illini Classic. The weekend begins at 10 a.m. on Friday with a visit from Arizona State, then continues at 7:30 p.m. when Illinois takes on No. 5 Washington in the annual "Stuff Huff" night. The Classic concludes on Saturday at 7 p.m. with a visit by the defending National Champion No. 6 Texas Longhorns.