Illini Drop Big Ten Opener, 3-0, to No. 12 Minnesota
Sept. 21, 2012
Champaign, Ill. – The University of Illinois volleyball team suffered a rough start to the Big Ten season, dropping the conference opener 3-0 (25-17, 25-17, 25-23) to No. 12 Minnesota. The Golden Gophers improved to 10-2 (1-0 Big Ten) behind double-digit kill matches for Katherine Harms and Tori Dixon. The Illini drop their first conference opener since 2008, falling to 6-5 (0-1 Big Ten).
“I’m not giving up hope that this team isn’t going to be able to pull and come back around,” said Head Coach Kevin Hambly. “We just need to learn, and this is a long process that we have to embark on. I’m committed to that process. It’s something that we have to take and learn from, and use it, and do better.
“It’s going to be something we reference later in the season like you do all the hard losses and all the good wins; you reference those things and you use them. If we use it and turn it into something, we can turn it into a lesson that we can use for the rest of the season.”
Jocelynn Birks once again led the attack for the Illini, notching 14 kills, and Anna Dorn, who ranked 11th in the nation in hitting percentage entering the match, kept up her high efficiency, hitting .545 with seven kills. Annie Luhrsen set up 29 assists, and Erin Johnson led the defense at the net with six blocks.
“We’re a young team,” said Dorn. “We’re working on a lot of things and I have no doubt that we can come together towards the end of the season. It just, sometimes at the beginning, it just takes time to get everything solidified. We figured a lot of really good things out last weekend like how to fight as a team and how to come together, communicate with one another and we just need to learn how to extend that to all of our matches.”
The Golden Gophers, the national leader in hitting percentage entering the week, hit .375, as Tori Dixon recorded 11 kills in 16 errorless swings for a .688 attack clip. Katherine Harms led the team with 17 kills and hit .400, and Alexandra Palmer notched 44 assists.
“They are the essential Big Ten team,” Dorn said of Minnesota. “They’re big and physical, ready to do a lot of things that we haven’t necessarily seen, because they can hit over us and around us and all that stuff. I think it was just a really good test, like ‘Are we ready?’ ‘Do we have the mindset?’ ‘Do we know how to prepare for a match like this?’ So I think it was just a really good way to start out, just because it would be a good test for us.”
The first set began neck-and-neck, neither team leading by more than one, until a Daly Santana error made it 8-7 Illini. Back-to-back kills by Katherine Harms then sparked a 7-point run for the Golden Gophers to go ahead 14-8. A pair of Birks kills stopped the streak, and a kill by Anna Dorn brought the Illini back within three, down 14-11. Illinois kept it close over the next several plays, but Minnesota maintained its lead, until the Golden Gophers led 20-16. A kill by Harms sparked another Minnesota run, leading to set-point, 24-16, and after Ali Stark saved the Illini with a kill, Harms smashed her seventh kill of the set to win the first frame, 25-17.
The Golden Gophers opened the second set up 7-4, and held onto their lead for the remainder of the stanza. Minnesota extended its advantage to 12-7, forcing the Illini to call a timeout, and after the break the Illini came out hot, winning the next three points on a Johnson kill and a pair of smashes from Birks. However, the Golden Gophers then called their own timeout, and returned from the break with a 4-1 run to push ahead, 16-11. Ashley Wittman helped keep the Gophers on top, as they took the second set by another score of 25-17.
Illinois played it close to start the third set, but a 7-1 run midway through the frame put the Gophers ahead 16-9, holding a sweep in their sights. However, the Illini did not give up and battled their way all the way back to tie the score at 19. A kill by Ashley Wittman made it 20-19 Minnesota, but Santana’s attack error evened it at 20. Harms earned another Gopher advantage, but Birks tied the score at 21. Harms registered the following kill, but Birks evened it again. Tori Dixon then gave Minnesota the advantage, and as Birks tried to tie the score for the third straight time, her attack grazed the antenna and set up match point. Tori Dixon then put the icing on the cake, notching her 11th kill of the night to sweep out the match with a third-set score of 25-23.
“We’re still a young team,” said junior libero Jennifer Beltran. “We’re at the start of our season. We only think it’s going to get better from here. There’s a lot we can learn from this match, as we do from every single match we’re going to play this season. We’re going to continue to get better and keep learning and grow.”
The Illini complete their home weekend on Sunday, when they host the Badgers of Wisconsin, who defeated Northwestern, 3-1, tonight in their conference opener. The match will begin at 1 p.m. on BTN.com.