No. 2 Texas Edges No. 14 Illini in Five
Sept. 14, 2013
Champaign, Ill. - The No. 14 Illinois volleyball team hosted the defending National Champion No. 2 Texas Longhorns in the final match of the 30th annual Illini Classic, which featured a weekend full of top-notch, highly-contested matches between national powerhouses. Saturday's match was no exception, as the two top-20 teams fought back and forth down to the very end, but unfortunately for the 2,642 fans in attendance, Texas came out on top, 3-2 (25-23, 23-25, 25-13, 24-26, 15-11).
The win gave the Longhorns the chance to make up for the 3-2 defeat the Illini doled out in Austin exactly one year ago--right before the Longhorns went on a 17-match winning streak and won the national championship. Texas is now 5-2 on the year, while Illinois drops down to 4-4.
"Today was a huge change in the serve and pass battle as opposed to yesterday," said junior Liz McMahon, who had two aces in the match. "I thought our servers really got them out of system and our passers really worked their butts off."
Sophomore outside hitter Jocelynn Birks recorded her 14th career 20-kill match and 15th double-double, tallying 21 kills, 12 digs and three aces. After a slow start to the weekend, redshirt freshman middle blocker Maddie Mayers had another impressive match, registering a personal-best 15 kills, hitting .323, and slamming a team-high eight blocks.
"(Maddie) was our go-to attacker," said Head Coach Kevin Hambly. "She had a nice matchup where she was matched up on Amy Neil, number nine, and we tried to exploit that and she did. We need that from her all the time. She's learning the game and learning how to play college volleyball. When she's good, she's really good, but like she said she disappears at times and we need to get her more consistent, because I really like when she's being aggressive and going for it."
Sophomore setter Alexis Viliunas recorded her third-straight double-double with 47 assists, 15 kills and four blocks, and Julia Conard had a season-high 14 digs from the back row. Senior Jennifer Beltran marked down her second 20-dig match of the weekend, digging 24 balls in the match to increase her career tally to 1,829 and move within 100 digs of the Ashley Edinger's '09 all-time Illinois record of 1,921.
Across the court, outside hitters Bailey Webster and Hailey Eckerman, both 2012 First-Team All-Americans, combined for 40 kills, as Eckerman hit .340 with 21 kills, 15 digs and both of her team's aces, and Webster chipped in 17 kills. Texas' setters Hannah Allison (35a, 14d) and Chloe Collins (21a, 10d) both had solid defensive performances, and libero Sarah Palmer tallied 18 digs. As a team, Texas put up 15 big blocks, including nine by sophomore middle Molly McCage.
"Yeah, they're number two in the country and just won a national championship and they've had number one or two recruiting classes for the last three years," Hambly commented. "They're going to have some freaks and I mean that in a good way. Eckerman was a great player; she's a player-of-the-year candidate and she showed it. She was special. Webster presented some challenges with her height and athleticism that you don't see very often.
"It's fun to play against a team like that because it's a different kind of puzzle. I thought we put the pieces together at times and we couldn't at other times, so it's good preparation for the Big Ten because there are teams who have freaks."
"They're athletes, but that's all we talked about in scouting," said Mayers. "Our system is perfectly matched to compete with their system. I thought we really followed what we were going to do and we competed hard."
Illinois had the lead early in the first set, going up 12-8 with the help of kills by Mayers and Birks and a Mayers-Stark block. Texas tied the score at 14 thanks to a pair of blocks by Ogbogu and McCage, but Illinois pushed right back ahead 17-15. However, the Longhorns won the next three points to take the lead 18-17, then used a 5-0 run to take a solid late lead, 23-18. Illinois fought its way back within one, 24-23, but Webster nailed the final kill to edge the Illini, 25-23.
Texas had control of most of the second set, pulling ahead 13-9 midway through the frame. Illinois kept it close, but further in, the Longhorns were still on top 20-17. A kill-ace-kill sequence by McMahon tied the score at 20, but an error returned the lead to Texas. Birks replied with a kill and a UT error put Illinois ahead, but a service error re-tied the score at 22. Khat Bell put Texas back on top 23-22, but a ball-handling error by setter Allison knotted the score once again, and back-to-back kills by Mayers and Birks sealed the deal for the Illini, 25-23, and tied the match at one set apiece.
The Longhorns came out of the break with a vengeance, opening up a huge lead and never backing down, claiming the third set, 25-13.
While some teams may throw in the towel after a deflating set with that kind of margin, the Illini instantly shook it off and came right back hard in the fourth, quickly pulling ahead 8-3. The Longhorns stayed with it, tying the score at 13, but Illinois pushed right back up 17-14. Texas continued to fight back, and finally took its first lead near the end of the set, 23-22. However, Illinois still did not back down as a kill by Birks tied the score and a Viliunas-Mayers block made it set-point Illini, 24-23. A block by Webster and Khat Bell re-tied the score at 24, but Mayers slammed a kill for another set point, and she and Viliunas teamed up once again on a Neal attack to shut the door on set four, 26-24, and force a fifth set.
"I thought we didn't give up," said Mayers. "Yesterday, in one of the sets at Stuff Huff we thought we kind of quit and that's completely unacceptable for this team to do, and I thought in this match we fought until the end."
Texas jumped out to a substantial lead early in the short fifth set, quickly going up 6-2. The Illini's resilience continued to show through, as the Orange and Blue battled back to tie the score at 10-10 on a kill by Birks, forcing Texas to call timeout. Whatever Coach Elliott said to his team in the break, it worked, because the Longhorns exploded back after the pause to claim five of the next six points and seal up their first-ever win in Champaign.
"It was a tough tournament," said Hambly. "We scheduled a tough tournament and we knew it would be tough. I was disappointed that we didn't get one more of these. I thought going into this weekend we could be 2-1 and that's tough not to get. I knew it would be tough to win all three matches even though certainly we were capable of that, but just with the nature of the competition I expected everyone to go 2-1."
The Illini finish out the pre-conference season next weekend with a trip to the East Coast for a pair of ACC matchups. Illinois will face No. 18 North Carolina on Friday, Sept. 20, then take on Duke on Saturday. Both matches will begin at 6 p.m. CT.