#3 Illinois Falls to #15 Minnesota 3-0
Oct. 29, 2011
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - Illinois has prided itself in defending the home court in recent years. The Illini have just six losses at home in the last four years and have won 34 of its last 36 at Huff Hall. Both of those losses in that current streak have come to Minnesota, including a stunning 25-19, 25-20, 25-15 defeat to No. 15 Minnesota on Saturday night.
"I think it reflects our whole week of practice," senior outside hitter Michelle Bartsch said. "It was kind of a weird vibe all week and we aren't playing together by any means. We're talking about it and trying to fix it but it's not there."
What was puzzling wasn't necessarily the loss, but how it happened. The third-ranked Illini hadn't lost the serve-pass battle that badly in a long time and the fact that Minnesota was able to keep Illinois out of system resulted in a season-low .087 hitting percentage.
"We gave them a whole set worth of points at least," Illinois head coach Kevin Hambly said. "We couldn't keep the ball in play and couldn't keep pressure on them in serves."
Illinois also lost an opportunity to move back into a tie for first as No. 8 Penn State defeated No. 1 Nebraska in four sets. At 21-2 overall and 10-2 in the Big Ten, the Illini are now tied for second in the conference with the Nittany Lions, one match behind Nebraska. Minnesota improves to 13-8 overall and 6-6 in the Big Ten.
Minnesota had seven aces on the night, four from Tori Dixon. Those seven reception errors combined with 11 service errors and no aces for the Illini made it tough for them to get into any rhythm offensively. Bartsch hit .226 with a team-leading 11 kills. The rest of the team combined to hit .016.
"They served tough and went after it," Hambly said. "They did what they had to do; they attacked us and got us out of our system. That's what we need to do too but they beat us in that battle."
Once in set two then again in set three, it appeared as if Illinois was going to turn things around, but in both occasions, the Illini's passing broke down.
Minnesota had the edge most of the first set in a frame that both teams had several unforced errors. The Gophers had a slight edge in hitting percentage (.135-.118) paced by five kills from Ashley Wittman. Bartsch did her best to keep the Illini in it, hitting .364 with five kills. After Bartsch tied the score at 16-16, the Gophers closed on a 9-3 run to win it going away. The difference was the serve-pass game where Minnesota aced the Illini four times, twice off the arm of Tori Dixon.
Illinois looked as if it was in line to tie the match as the Illini were in control much of the first part of the second set. Once again, however, the Orange and Blue had trouble in the serve/pass game with six service errors and no aces. The set turned on the arms of Minnesota's Hailey Cowles and Dixon, who each served up aces and got the Illini out of system. With Illinois up 16-15, that duo led a 6-1 charge that turned it in the Gophers favor.
Illinois responded after the break, thanks in large part to sophomore Jazmine Orozco, who had two kills and a block as the Illini went up 3-1. Ahead 9-7, however, the Orange and Blue again fell victim to the serving of Cowles and Dixon as they led a 6-2 Gopher run to put Minnesota ahead for good at 13-11. The Illini never recovered as the Minnesota lead reached insurmountable margins of 17-11 and 21-13.
"We saw signs that we emotionally fell apart in the Nebraska match," Hambly said. "I saw some similar things happen tonight and we've been addressing it, but you can't make changes on those things overnight. We saw glimpses of that turning around in the third set but we couldn't sustain it."
The Illini have only two practice days before trying to turn things around on Wednesday at No. 11 Purdue.