Illini Win Nail-Biter with Cincinnati, Sweep Texas Invite
Sept. 16, 2012
Austin, Texas – It wasn’t easy, but the No. 23 Illinois volleyball completed the sweep of the Time Warner Cable Texas Invitational this evening with a 3-1 (28-26, 23-25, 28-26, 25-18) victory over the Bearcats of the University of Cincinnati. The Illini recorded an unprecedented four double-doubles in the match, with three front-row starters hitting over .500. Illinois finishes out the non-conference season with a 6-4 record, while Cincinnati drops to 3-10.
“It was huge for our confidence, of course, that goes without saying,” said Head Coach Kevin Hambly. “But I think more importantly, it was huge because we have a young team that is starting to come together and learn to communicate…and I feel like the team has started to gel. Now, we have a long ways to go and a lot of stuff to work on, but…we’ve been working the whole time on getting that cohesive unit together, and I feel like now we’re starting to be able to put the pieces on top of that.”
Redshirt freshman Jocelynn Birks, who was named the tournament’s most valuable player, recorded her third-straight double-double with a whopping 24 kills and 16 digs. Anna Dorn, who earned her third all-tournament honor of the year, notched nine kills on 17 swings for a .529 hitting percentage with six blocks, to finish the weekend with the best hitting percentage of the tournament, attacking at a .622 clip with 29 kills in 45 attempts and just one error. Erin Johnson was the Illini’s third and final member of the all-tournament team, hitting .526 in the match with 11 kills and six blocks.
Outside hitter Ali Stark recorded her first career double-double, registering personal bests in both kills (13) and digs (13). Setter Annie Luhrsen notched her team-leading 13th career double-double and second of the season, with 49 assists, 12 digs and six blocks, and libero Jennifer Beltran had her first career double-double, tabbing 18 digs and a career-high 11 assists. Sophomore Liz McMahon continued to dominate at the net, recording five blocks and six kills to lead the tournament with 21 total blocks, averaging 1.75 per set.
While the Illini have played three 5-set matches this season, Illinois recorded season highs in kills (69), attacks (175), assists (62) and digs (68) in the heavily contested match.
“This was a good tournament,” said Hambly, “and our two redshirt-freshmen outside hitters (Jocelynn Birks and Ali Stark), they’re starting to figure stuff out, which is great to see. How we pull out of struggles is really great to see; Ali and Jocelynn were struggling at times and couldn’t score, and then that fourth set was really positive because they turned it around, they stayed aggressive and worked their way through it, which is what you have to do.”
The Illini got off to a hot start, opening the first set 2-0 with kills by Johnson and Birks, and quickly stretched out a 10-4 lead with Beltran behind the service line. However, the Bearcats stayed focused and won eight of the next 11 points to come within one, down 13-12. A service error by Jordanne Scott prevented the Bearcats from tying the score, and soon the Illini regained their lead, 20-16. Cincinnati continued to play tight, but a Dorn kill made it set point for the Illini, up 24-22. However, a kill by Emily Hayden and an ace by Emily Macintyre knotted the score at 24 and made it anybody’s game. A McMahon kill set up another Illinois set point, but a Scott kill tied it at 25. Becca Refenes hit it out of bounds for a third set point, but Scott tied the score yet again. Birks gave the Illini a 27-26 lead with a kill from Luhrsen, and while Scott tried to tie the score for the third-straight time, her attack went wide, handing the Illini a hard-fought, 28-26 win in the first set.
The second set started just as the first ended, as the two teams traded points, neither earning a lead of more than two, until a kill by McMahon sparked a three-point run for the Illini, who took a 10-6 lead. However, the Bearcats answered right back with a 3-0 run to bring the deficit within one, 10-9. U of I then won five of the next seven points, with the help of two Dorn/Luhrsen blocks, to take their largest lead of the set, 16-11. But the Bearcats would not be tamed, and they soon battled their way into a 20-20 tie. After trading points to make it 21-all, the Bearcats won three straight to reach their first set point of the match. A Luhrsen/Johnson block followed by a Birks kill made it 24-23, but Emily Hayden finished it off for Cincinnati, as the Bearcats tied the match at one set apiece with a 25-23 victory.
Set three was even more dramatic than the first two, featuring seven ties and three major lead changes. Riding their momentum from the end of the second set, the Bearcats started out on top, and soon had a sizable lead on the Illini, up 10-5. Cincy continued to hang on to its comfortable lead for the majority of the set, but with the help of five kills by Ali Stark, the Illini fought their way back to tie the score at 21. A service ace by Karen Onuki and a Jordanne Scott kill gave Cincinnati a 23-21 advantage, but kills by Stark and Birks tied the score and another Luhrsen/Johnson block handed the Illini their first lead of the set, 24-23. However, once again, Scott saved the Bearcats on set point to tie it at 24. Birks took back the Illini lead, but Scott tied it once more. Birks did it again, but Refenes tied it at 26. Dorn gave the Illini yet another set point, and this time the Illini converted, as Haydon’s attack sailed out of bounds for a final set score of 28-26 Illinois.
The fourth set began with a 3-3 tie, but the Illini’s excitement from the third set propelled them past the Bearcats and into a 10-5 advantage. Illinois continued to cruise through the fourth set, keeping a comfortable lead over Cincinnati, but after the drama of the first three sets, no lead felt safe. As the Bearcats tried to narrow the gap, making it 19-16, the Illini turned it into overdrive, winning six of the last eight points, including four kills from MVP Jocelynn Birks, to close out the exciting match with a 25-18 set win.
“I think they knew what they were getting into,” said Hambly. “They knew it would be tough, and so they came in focused and they started in the first set and they got out to a lead. And Cincinnati’s just tough, they fought back … Their kids made plays, and I just thought that the Cincinnati team never quit no matter how many points we ran off on them. Even at the very end, we were up 24-17, and I was expecting them to make a run back because they just claw and scratch and fight hard and they’re scrappy. It’s a good team for us to play, because we have to learn how to do that as well.”
As the winners of the Time Warner Cable Texas Invitational, three Illini were named to the all-tournament team, with Birks garnering MVP honors and Dorn and Johnson both earning all-tournament selections. Cincinnati’s Emily Macintyre was voted most valuable libero, and senior Jordanne Scott joined her on the all-tournament team. Texas outside hitters Bailey Webster and Haley Eckerman were both honored with spots on the team, and UCF’s Ashley Gialenios finished off the eight-member squad.
The Illini open up Big Ten action at home next weekend, when they host No. 10 Minnesota and Wisconsin at Huff Hall. Illinois will take on Minnesota at 7 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 21, on the Big Ten Network, before facing the Badgers at 1 p.m. on Sunday. The Illini are running several big promotions over the weekend, so get your tickets today!