Women's Volleyball
No. 1 Penn State Escapes Upset in Five Set Thriller

Jocelynn Birks had 20 kills and 23 digs to record just the 31st 20-20 in Illini history.
Jocelynn Birks had 20 kills and 23 digs to record just the 31st 20-20 in Illini history.

Oct. 7, 2012

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Champaign, Ill. - The No. 21 Fighting Illini Volleyball team had an upset in its sights, but the top-ranked Penn State Nittany Lions erased four Illinois match points to come out victorious, winning 3-2 (23-25, 25-18, 25-21, 24-26, 18-16). The contest marks the Illini's third-straight 5-set loss, as the Orange and Blue fall to 8-8 (2-4 Big Ten). The Nittany Lions are the lone Big Ten team to remain undefeated in conference play, sitting at 15-1 overall and 6-0 in the league.

"We have to execute over a longer period of time," said Head Coach Kevin Hambly. "It's pretty simple. We have to attack teams and maintain an attacking mentality for the whole match."

"I think we saw the difference that it can make when we are attacking a team from when we are not attacking a team," said senior middle Erin Johnson. "Our mentality and the way we went about playing was the difference between winning and losing. When we were attacking them I thought we were winning, and when we were passive we weren't."

Redshirt freshman Jocelynn Birks attacked the ball from all sides of the court, leading the Illini with 20 kills and a career-high 23 digs to go along with five blocks and an ace, to become the 17th Illinois spiker to record 20-or-more kills and digs in a match. Marking her sixth match with at least 20 kills, she is just the fifth player to record a 20-20 in her first year as a letterwinner.

"I was just trying to play free," said Birks. "My teammates were being supportive, and we really came together and that always helps."

Sophomore Liz McMahon had yet another successful night in the front row, ripping 17 kills and three blocks, and Anna Dorn hit .455 with 11 kills and five blocks. Annie Luhrsen put up 53 assists and 12 digs for her 16th career double-double, and Erin Johnson tabbed an additional eight kills.

On defense, the Illini put up 13 blocks as a team, including six by Johnson, four of which came in the first set. With her second block of the match, the senior middle moved into the top 10 all time at Illinois, finishing the evening with 410 total career blocks. Libero Jennifer Beltran put up 17 digs, and Jackie Wolfe registered her first kill of the season, finding the court on an overpass.

Junior opposite hitter Ariel Scott led the Nittany Lions with 19 kills, followed by Katie Slay and Deja McClendon with 15 apiece. Penn State had four players with double-digit digs, in McClendon (15), Micha Hancock (13), Megan Courtney (12) and Dominique Gonzalez (12). Slay contributed seven of the Nittany Lions' 10 blocks, and Hancock tabbed 53 assists but made five service errors.

The first set was as contested as they get, with neither team able to win back-to-back points as the score held firmly knotted at 11. A block by Luhrsen and Johnson gave the Illini a 12-11 lead, and a powerful serve by Jackie Wolfe earned the first multi-point lead of the match. Johnson and Stark teamed up for a block on the next play, breaking Johnson into the top 10 all time at Illinois in career blocks. A service error by Wolfe and a kill by Katie Slay made it 14-13, but Johnson ripped a kill then paired with Birks for a block to make it 16-13. A kill by McClendon sparked a 3-0 Penn State run, tying the score at 18, but kills by Dorn and McMahon put the Illini back up 20-18. A kill and a block by Scott tied the score again, this time at 21, and another Scott kill gave the Nittany Lions back the lead, 22-21. McMahon tied it with a kill, but a service error returned the advantage to Penn State, 23-22. However, Luhrsen and Johnson tied the score with a block on Courtney's attack, and a Stark ace made it set point. Birks then put the icing on the cake with her third kill of the set to take the opening stanza, 25-23.

The Nittany Lions did not get discouraged after dropping their first set in four matches, and rebounded in the second with an early 11-4 lead.  Morganne Criswell entered the match and immediately put up a kill, but a service error stopped the Illini from building momentum, and soon the Nittany Lions led 21-10. A kill by Birks snapped a 3-0 PSU run, sparking the Illini offense to begin a comeback. An attack error by McClendon and another Birks kill led to a Penn State timeout, but after the break Johnson came out with a kill, and Birks and Johnson each tabbed another for a 6-0 run to make it 21-16. Slay stopped the bleeding with a kill, but Birks replied with her sixth kill of the set to make it 22-17. Slay earned her fourth kill of the set and a Gonzalez ace made it set point. Birks smashed another kill, but an Illini service error finished the set, as Penn State evened the match with a 25-18 victory.

The Illini came back from the break ready to fight, and soon earned a 7-2 lead. A Gonzalez service error made it 10-4 in the Illini's favor, but a Scott kill sparked a momentum changer for the Nittany Lions, who won four straight to pull within two, 10-8. Johnson ripped a kill then dropped in an ace to go up 12-8. Penn State pushed back again to come within one, 13-12, but Dorn and Stark each notched a kill for a 15-12 lead. McClendon smashed another kill, which preceded a Hancock ace and a kill by Nia Grant to tie the score for the first time since it had been 1-1. A Hancock service error returned the Illini's advantage, but another kill by McClendon followed by a misplaced set by Luhrsen gave the Nittany Lions a 17-16 lead, and back-to-back attack errors extended it to 19-16. Criswell came in for another momentum shift, tabbing her second kill, but Scott replied with a kill and a Luhrsen error made it 21-17. Johnson, Birks and Dorn each had another kill, and Dorn and Birks teamed up for a block, but Katie Slay closed out the set with her fourth kill of the frame to take a 2-1 match lead with a 25-21 win.

Illinois took to the court in set four with a vengeance, once again leading 8-3 to start the set, backed by a 6-point serving run by Beltran featuring three McMahon kills.  The Illini continued to lead for most of the set, up 19-13, but in true Penn State fashion, the Nittany Lions made a late run to close the gap to one, 19-18, with Lacey Fuller at the line. The Illini avoided the tie, and a Dorn kill made it set point, 24-22. Kills by McClendon and Scott tied it at 24, but back-to-back kills by McMahon finished it off, claiming the fourth set, 26-24, and forcing a tiebreaking fifth set.

3,075 strong were on their feet at Huff, awaiting the thrilling fifth frame.

"It was great," Hambly said. "Good buzz in the air, very intense, they were behind us and supportive. They were giving Penn State a little bit of a hard time, but never crossed the line."

After opening the frame with an attack error, Birks followed with a kill, and a Stark kill made it 2-1 Illinois. Scott tied it, but McMahon made it 3-2. A kill by Scott and a Birks error handed the advantage to Penn State, 4-3, but the Illini won the next three straight, highlighted by a Wolfe ace, to make it 6-4. A triple block and a Slay kill tied it at six, but a Birks kill and a Birks-Johnson block put U of I back up 8-6, and this time the Orange and Blue held on to the lead until a Racibarskas service error made it Illini match point, up 14-10. Scott and Martin each tabbed kills to keep the Nittany Lions alive, 14-12, as the Illini called timeout. Stark tried to tool the block on the next play, but the ball landed inches inside the line--14-13. Megan Courtney then erased the Illini advantage with a solo block to tie the score at 14. Scott won the next point, but then hit into a Johnson-McMahon block for a 15-15 tie. Scott ripped her team-leading 19th kill for another PSU advantage, but an attack error by Courtney made it 16-16. Hancock and Slay laid down the block on the next play, and McClendon finally sealed the deal, finding an open spot in the back corner of the court to avoid taking their third-straight loss in Huff with an 18-16 victory.

"We just didn't execute," said Hambly. "We slipped in passing when, against that team, if you're not passing in a situation where you can run your offense the way you need to and you're out of system--they're big and physical and that was a good matchup for them in those rotations and they took advantage of it and we didn't."

The Illini will have a quick turnaround, as they travel to Michigan on Wednesday for their first mid-week match of the season. The Orange and Blue will take on the Wolverines at 7 p.m. CT live on the Big Ten Network.