Illini Storm Back to Stun Spartans, 3-2
Oct. 13, 2012
East Lansing, Mich. – The Fighting Illini lived up to their name this evening, as they fought back from down 0-2 to defeat No. 25 Michigan State, 3-2 (18-25, 23-25, 25-22, 25-16, 15-8). Freshman setter Alexis Viliunas made it into the starting lineup for the first time, recording a double-double in her first appearance in an Illinois uniform. The win snaps the Illini’s four-match skid, to even their record at 9-9 (3-5 Big Ten), while the Spartans drop their third straight to fall to 15-5 (3-5 Big Ten).
“I’m happy for the team,” said Head Coach Kevin Hambly. “They’ve been working really hard and they’ve had some really tough losses, that they were doing everything they could to try to win the match, and they just didn’t execute at times, and with a young squad that happens sometimes. But they decided they weren’t going to make any excuses about that, they were going to go for it.”
Jocelynn Birks led the Illini with 19 kills, adding six digs and three blocks. Liz McMahon followed with 18 kills, hitting .406, and recording an ace and two blocks. Erin Johnson registered 10 kills on just 15 errorless swings to hit .667, and stuffed two block assists to move into a tie for eighth all-time at Illinois in career block assists with 391.
Freshman setter Alexis Viliunas had a dazzling debut, recording 49 assists, 14 digs, three kills (on three swings) and a service ace.
“Poise,” was the immediate description Hambly gave of Viliunas. “She’s got a good spirit about her. For her first match, she seemed calm; she was just out there having a good time. That’s her mentality. Maybe it’s the right thing for this team moving forward. That’s why we tried it. It looked good tonight, and I hope that it continues that way.”
Jennifer Beltran dug 21 balls on defense, increasing her career total to 1,491 and moving into 21st all-time in Big Ten history. Redshirt freshman Ali Stark contributed on both sides of the court, tabbing nine kills, eight digs, two assists and a block.
Spartan junior outside hitter Lauren Wicinski led the match with 22 kills and 18 digs, and sophomore Taylor Galloway had an additional double-double with 11 kills and 14 digs. Alexis Matthews hit .667 with 11 kills and four blocks, and libero Kori Moster recorded 13 digs and six assists. Setters Kristen Kelsay and Halle Peterson registered 35 and 18 assists, respectively.
The Spartans opened the match with a Matthews-Dentlinger block, and followed with a Wicinski kill to lead 2-0. The Illini replied to tie it at 3-3, 4-4, and 5-5, before taking a 6-5 lead on a Birks kill. A Beltran ace and a kill by McMahon made it 8-6 Illini, but the Spartans won three of four to tie it at nine. Both teams traded points until it was 13-13, at which point the Illini opened up their largest lead of the set, 16-13, on Viliunas’ first career kill. The Spartans bounced back with three straight to tie it at 16, but a Birks kill regained the Illini lead, 17-16. However, a Kelsey Kuipers kill sparked an 8-0 run to reach set point, 24-17, and a Dentlinger kill finished it off, as the Spartans took the first set, 25-18.
The second set started much like the first, and soon the score was knotted at three. MSU pushed ahead 6-3 on a block by White and Wicinski, but the Illini came right back to tie it at seven on a Birks kill. Neither team led by more than one over the next 24 plays, tying at every point until it was 18-18. A Galloway kill made it 19-18, and Dentlinger then notched back-back kills to extend to a 21-18 lead. Dorn and Birks each had a kill to make it 22-21, but the Spartans reached a set point at 24-22 on a Beltran service error. Liz McMahon struck a kill to keep the Illini alive, and then Annie Luhrsen subbed in for Viliunas to protect the net on the block. Luhrsen slammed the ball down the middle of the court in what seemed to be a kill to tie the score at 24, but she was called for a net violation as the Spartans won the set, 25-23.
“Being down 0-2,” said Hambly, “they could have easily just said, ‘Hey, forget it, I’m done,’ but they did the opposite. They figured some stuff out, they cleaned everything up, they had one hitting error, they cleaned up all the errors in that third set, and the tide turned and you could see it. They put a lot of pressure on Michigan State, and I’m proud of them and happy for them, because of how much they’ve been through.”
Kristen Kelsay opened the third frame with a service error, and Jackie Wolfe followed with an ace, then assisted a Stark kill to start the third up 3-0. A pair of kills by McMahon pushed the Illini further ahead, as they soon led 8-3. Illinois extended its lead to 14-6, but the Spartans would not go quietly, battling back to within two, down 18-16. Kills by McMahon and Viliunas made it 20-16, but the Spartans fought right back to make it 22-20. Birks and Dorn each landed kills to reach the Illini’s first set point, 24-20, and after a pair of Wicinski kills, Birks finished out the frame to win the set, 25-22. It marked the first time this season that Illinois had won a set after trailing 0-2.
The Illini kept it flowing in the fourth set, cruising to an early 11-3 lead. However, Michigan State would not back down, forcing its way back into the set, 16-12. The Illini pushed right back to go ahead 20-14, and a Wicinski error made it set point, 24-15. Jazmine White kept the Spartans alive for one point, but an attack error by Matthews closed out the frame, as the Illini tied the match at two with a 25-16 victory.
Erin Johnson started the Illini off with a kill in the fifth set, and a Wicinski error made it 2-0 Illinois. The Spartans bounced right back to tie it with kills by Matthews and Wicinski, but Viliunas took back the lead with her third kill of the night. The Spartans won the next two to take their first lead, 4-3, but back-to-back kills by McMahon regained the Illini lead, 5-4. Matthews tied it at five with a kill, but a McMahon kill and a pair of blocks by Johnson pushed the Illini out in front 9-5, and the Spartans would never recover. Halle Peterson followed a Dentlinger kill with a service error and a bad set to force an MSU timeout, down 11-6. Following the break, McMahon teamed up with Viliunas for a block and followed with a kill to make it 13-6, and after a pair of Spartan kills got them to eight, Stark and Johnson completed the miraculous comeback, winning the fifth set by a final score of 15-8.
Tonight’s match marked the first time all season that the Illini have come back from trailing 0-2 or 1-2 to win a match. The last time the Illini forced a fifth set after dropping the first two came on Sept. 9, 2011, against then-No. 21 Dayton. The Flyers won the first two sets, before the Illini rebounded to win 25-20, 25-23 and 15-12 to sweep the State Farm Illini Classic.
The Illini return home on Wednesday to face in-state rival Northwestern in Big Ten play. The Wildcats are 13-6 on the season, but just 2-6 in conference play. The match is scheduled to begin at 7p.m. on Oct. 17.