No. 4 Penn State Escapes Upset in Five
Oct. 18, 2013
Champaign, Ill. - The University of Illinois suffered a bit of unfortunate déja vu this evening, as No. 4 Penn State came back to defeat the Fighting Illini on their home court in five sets for the second straight year. The Illini won the first set and had a large lead in the second, but PSU stormed back to capture the frame. Illinois replied with a comeback win in the third, but the Nittany Lions pulled away with the fourth then outlasted the Illini in the fifth to capture a 3-2 victory with scores of 19-25, 25-22, 24-26, 25-15, 15-12. With the win, Penn State improves to 15-2 (6-1 Big Ten) and moves into a tie with Michigan State and Nebraska for first place in the conference standings, while the Illini drop to 7-10 (3-4 Big Ten).
"We came out swinging," said Head Coach Kevin Hambly. "We came out fighting, and then from the first set to the second set they came at us harder and we backed down in that second set. I thought we had them on their heels and we continued to attack, but then I think we had four tips and all of a sudden they were ramming it down our throats. We talked about it; we recovered and I don't think we backed down again. We just didn't execute at some key moments and you just can't do that against a good team like Penn State."
"I think we played very good volleyball tonight," said junior Liz McMahon. "It was just a matter of the moments that they picked up, the execution slipped. It was a tough match."
Junior Morganne Criswell had a career night, leading the match with a personal-best 21 kills while hitting .400. It marks her first career 20-kill match, after setting her previous career high just six days ago at 15.
"She's been scoring and we've had some good matchups," Hambly said of Criswell. "She was against Micha (Hancock) tonight. Jocelynn was against Slay tonight which means she had a really tough matchup and means Morganne had a little bit better matchup and took advantage of it ... Some of it is matchups, some of it is when she's in a good mode she can score. If her head is right, we know she can score because she kicks our butt every day in practice, so we just need to keep her in that mode."
"Oh yeah, you can just tell by watching one point how into it she is," McMahon chimed in about her teammate. "She definitely gives a lot of emotion to this team and it's awesome."
Jocelynn Birks, dealing with a tough matchup opposite two-time All-Americans Ariel Scott and Katie Slay, still pounded out 13 kills, and McMahon recorded an additional 12.
"Jocelynn had a really tough matchup because she had Scott, a great blocker, and Slay against her who, if you look at the numbers of players who hit against them, they're low," said Hambly. "We gave her a tough matchup because we knew we had to slow down Scott, and I thought she did a great job on her. She only had nine kills at the end of the fourth set because Jocelynn did such a great job."
On defense, the Illini put up 8.5 blocks, led at the net by Anna Dorn with five, Birks with four and Katie Stadick with three. The back row pushed up a total of 60 digs, led by Birks' double-double with 13, followed by freshman Danielle Davis with 11, and 10 apiece by libero Jennifer Beltran and defensive outside hitter Ali Stark. With the 10 digs, Beltran, who became Illinois' all-time digs leader six nights ago, jumped past Iowa's Janet Moylan '90 and into seventh all-time in Big Ten history with 1,939 career digs.
Quarterbacking the Illini offense was Alexis Viliunas who finished the night with 48 assists and was a dig shy of a double-double with nine.
The Illini serve game was strong, with four different Illini recording an ace including the first of Davis' career, but their serving did stumble in the fifth, recording four costly errors to finish the night with 10. Penn State registered an unsightly 16 service errors, which stunted their scoring early on, but the Nittany Lions were able to overcome them in the end to steal away the match.
"The big thing we talked about was just going up and being aggressive, so any time we had a chance to swing hard and swing high that's just what we did," Criswell said after her match-leading performance.
"Everyone talks about how physical they are, but we're just as physical," said McMahon. "Why not bully them with our hits too. That was my mindset. Just get after it."
Leading the Penn State offense was three-time All-American Deja McClendon, who registered 14 kills despite four service errors and three reception errors, adding 10 digs for a double-double. Scott and Slay both tabbed 12 kills, as Slay hit .308, and Nia Grant hit .500 with 10 kills and a team-high six blocks. Scott also put up five block assists to add to the team's total of 13. Libero Dominique Gonzalez registered a team-best 13 digs and was perfect on serve receive, and setter Micha Hancock tallied 49 assists.
Penn State gave away the first point of the match with a service error, then won the next three to take an early 3-1 lead. The Illini replied with three straight points to regain the lead, 4-3, and did not trail again. After the score was knotted at eight, the Illini went on a 10-2 run, capped by three straight kills by Birks to take a daunting 18-10 lead, then extended it to 21-12. The Nittany Lions did not give up, battling back to within five, down 23-18, but kills by Dorn and McMahon sealed the set for the Illini, 25-19.
A miraculous comeback by the Nittany Lions kept Penn State from falling behind, 0-2. The Illini jumped out to a quick 13-5 lead thanks to four kills by Criswell. The Illini continued to hold a solid lead, 19-13, when a 10-1 run by Penn State gave PSU its first real lead of the match, ahead 23-20. Two more kills by Criswell held off the Nittany Lions, but Slay put the finishing touches on the frame, taking the second, 25-22, to tie the match at one set apiece.
It was the Illini who worked the comeback in the third set, as Penn State jumped out to an early 6-2 lead, but the Illini stormed back to tie the score at 13 on a kill by Criswell. PSU went back ahead 15-13, but Illinois replied with three straight to take a 16-15 lead. The Illini climbed up 21-17, but the Nittany Lions battled right back to tie the score at 23 on a ball-handing error by Viliunas. A service error by McClendon made it Illini set point, but Slay slammed a kill for a 24-24 tie. However, back-to-back kills by Criswell gave the Illini control of the match with a 26-24 win in set three.
The Nittany Lions came out firing in the fourth, leading early, and after Illinois tied the score at nine, PSU went right back ahead 13-9 and ran away with the set, 25-15, to force a tie-breaking fifth stanza.
Much like the match itself, the fifth set was a back-and-forth battle, neither team taking a lead larger than two and featuring five lead changes. The Nittany Lions opened up with a 3-1 lead, but Illinois came back to tie the score at four on a slam by Stadick. Everything was neck-and-neck, and another Stadick kill tied the score at 11. With Huff Hall abuzz, Stark went back to serve, but it caught the net and fell, giving Penn State a 12-11 lead, and a kill by Courtney extended it to 13-11. An error by Stadick set up match point, but a kill by Birks kept Illinois alive. However, Ariel Scott closed out the match with her 12th kill of the night to once again steal the night away from the Illini at Huff in five.
"We can compete with anybody," Hambly said when asked what he took away from the match, "we just have to execute at the end. We got better, we got tested, and there were a lot of things that they exposed that we'll get better at. There are some things we're working on all the time to get better. We've got to execute at the end of the game.
"Last year we struggled to play good volleyball and I think we can play really good volleyball. We just have to do it from 20 on in every set. That's what teams in the past that have won a lot of games have done, they execute at the end of matches."
The Illini are back in action on Sunday when they host No. 17 Ohio State at Huff Hall in Workout a Cure, the annual breast cancer awareness match. The Illini will be dressed in pink, and fans are encouraged to do the same to show support for those struggling with breast cancer and their loved ones. Admission is free with your football ticket stub, so make sure to check out the Illini vs. Wisconsin on Saturday night at 7 p.m. First serve on Sunday is set for 2 p.m.