Senior Michelle Bartsch paced the Illini attack, hitting .341 with a match-high 20 kills.
Oct. 12, 2011
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - In most years the teams that have set atop the Big Ten standings have been the most physical, an imposing force at the net. For the second straight match, the Illini were that team in posting 17 blocks, this time stopping another team with a physical reputation, Michigan. The Illini were dominant in the early sets, then had to reach back to close out the 20th-ranked Wolverines, 25-14, 25-19, 21-25, 25-20 in front of a midweek crowd of 2,347 at Huff Hall. Illinois moves to 18-0 overall and 7-0 in the Big Ten, a half game ahead of fifth-ranked Nebraska in the conference standings.
"I think we came out and played pretty physical like we ended at Penn State," Illinois head coach Kevin Hambly said. "We really focused on defense and worked really hard to close blocks."
Freshman middle blocker Anna Dorn, the most recent Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week, posted double digits in blocks for the second straight match, finishing with 10 block assists, one shy of her freshman teammate Liz McMahon who connected on a lethal block on numerous occasions. Illinois out-blocked the Wolverines, 17-3 on the night and limited Michigan (14-5, 2-5) to a .182 attack percentage.
"Before every game, we talk about being competitive," Dorn said. "The defense is definitely the cornerstone of our team; when we have a strong defense, I feel like everything else falls into place. We're just focusing a lot on that every game."
Offensively, Illinois posted an impressive .305 attack percentage thanks to a steady performance in which the Illini hit between .273 and .333 in each set individually. Junior setter Annie Luhrsen, who engineered the offense, finished with 44 assists and eight digs. Senior Michelle Bartsch played like an All-American, hitting .341 from the outside with 20 kills and six digs. Senior Colleen Ward was potent as well, belting all 14 of her kills in the last three sets while also finishing with a double-double thanks to 10 digs.
"The last three teams have been the toughest serving matches," Hambly said. "Michigan puts a lot of pressure on you. I think we're starting to match that and I thought it was a good serving battle tonight."
Illinois carried the defensive momentum from the last two sets at Penn State into Wednesday's match with six blocks in the first set. The Orange and Blue broke open a 5-5 set with five straight points, the last four off the serve of Rachel Feldman. Erin Johnson (6 kills, 6 blocks, .455) scored three straight times on the backslide then teamed with Bartsch for the block. Hunt had six of the 11 Michigan kills in the opening frame. Dorn continued her effort at the net with three blocks in the first set. The lead reached as big as 21-10 before Bartsch finished it off with a couple of explosive kills.
Teams traded side outs to start the second set. The Illini used a 6-1 run to build a 12-7 advantage and extended it to 18-11 after an ace from Bartsch. The Wolverines closed to within 21-18 forcing Illinois to call a timeout. Then the Illini used another 6-1 run capped off by a kill off the block from McMahon.
While Illinois was the team to break out in front of a tie score in sets one and two, Michigan took charge in set three. The first part of the set saw several first ball side outs as both teams hit over .400. With the score tied at 15-15, play became much more defensive with longer rallies. Michigan went in front 17-15 and 21-17 and the Illini could get no closer. The Wolverines got a balanced attack with three kills each from Alex Hunt and Courtney Fletcher and four kills from Claire McElheny. The Wolverines sided out a strong 76 percent and finished the set hitting .355. The Illini hit a respectable .294, but couldn't slow down the Michigan attack.
For the most part, Illinois was able to slow down the Michigan big hitting lefty Hunt, who had 13 kills, but hit just .083. The Illini had four more blocks in the third set and the defense dropped the Wolverine attack percentage down to .139. Several times in the set, it looked as if the Illini were going to pull away. Dorn and McMahon closed on a block after the media timeout, making it 16-13 Illinois. Michigan's Jennifer Cross (10 kills, .400) teamed with freshman setter Lexi Dannemiller for a block to tie it at 16-16. The Illini finally went up for good as Ward hit a couple cross court shots to make it 24-19 Illini.
Illinois hosts Michigan State (14-4, 3-3) at Huff Hall Saturday night.