Illini Complete Brutal Road Stretch with Sweep of Iowa
Nov. 2, 2013
Iowa City, Iowa - The Fighting Illini volleyball team completed its rough stretch of four separate road trips in 12 days with a dominating victory in Iowa City, as Illinois defeated the Hawkeyes, 3-0 (25-16, 25-21, 25-18). Sophomore Jocelynn Birks led the match with a whopping 18 kills in just three sets, while libero Jennifer Beltran registered her first 20-dig performance in a 3-setter since 2011, putting up 21. The win evens Illinois' Big Ten record to 6-6, as the Orange and Blue are 10-12 overall on the year, while Iowa falls to 10-14 (1-11 Big Ten).
"We really came into it thinking about sticking together and executing and making sure that they didn't get any runs, because we know how hard they work and how much they can come back," said Birks. "They're a good team, so we focused on sticking together and making that happen."
Birks took the majority of the swings in the match, tallying 18 kills, 11 digs and three blocks to register her 21st career double-double. Fellow outsides Liz McMahon and Morganne Criswell were next with six kills apiece, and middle blocker Maddie Mayers tallied five kills. Mayers led the team at the net with five block assists, while McMahon pitched in on four.
"She's a special outside," Head Coach Kevin Hambly said of Birks. "She's one of the best point scorers and left-side blockers. She can do it all."
On defense, Beltran led the match with 21 digs, marking just the fourth time in the senior's career that she has recorded 20+ digs in a 3-set match and the first time since Nov. 23, 2011, in a sweep of Northwestern. In addition to Birks' 11 digs, freshman Danielle Davis matched her personal best with 15, including 10 in the first set alone. Alexis Viliunas totaled 30 assists at setter, and Beltran added four.
"I thought at times we played really good defense, touched a lot of balls and played really tough," said Hambly. "They made a lot of errors and some had to do with our block. I think we did a good job of creating deflections and frustrating them."
Both teams were abundant in service aces, as Ali Stark led the match with three of the Illini's four aces, while the Hawkeyes totaled eight perfect serves on the night, with two each by Alex Lovell, Rachael Bedell and Alyssa Klostermann.
"We always talk about, if we serve aggressively, we can get them, and I thought we served really aggressively tonight," said Hambly. "I think they got more comfortable, because they got some points, so they felt like they could take some chances, and I saw them execute."
Lovell and Bedell tied for the team lead with seven kills apiece, and libero Bethany Yeager tallied 16 digs. Setter Nikki Daily had a double-double with 10 assists and 10 digs, and Klostermann added seven assists.
The Illini hit the ground running, winning the first six points of the match behind two Birks kills and a handful of Iowa missteps. The Hawkeyes were able to put together a small comeback, pulling within four, 10-6, but Illinois replied with a run of its own to pull back out, 17-8, and despite a late 4-0 run by the Hawkeyes, easily took the first set, 25-16.
Nikki Daily began the second set with the first of what would go on to be seven Iowa service aces in the frame, as Iowa took its first lead of the night, 2-0. The score went back and forth until a 6-0 run served out by Ali Stark put Illinois ahead 11-5. Iowa pushed right back, coming within three, 13-10, thanks to back-to-back aces by Klostermann. The Illini strung together their own run with the help of three blocks and strong serving by Beltran to pull up 22-12, and soon reached set point, 24-16. Dominant serving by Alex Lovell helped the Hawkeyes to erase five Illinois attempts to close out the frame, but an error by Bedell finally ended it, as the Illini took a 2-0 match lead with a 25-21 win in the second.
Despite holding a comfortable two-set lead, Illini fans held their breath during the break, remembering the Orange and Blue's recent struggles in the third set. It began 11 days ago, when Illinois led Northwestern, 2-0, then were stunned by the Wildcats for three-straight set losses as they dropped a heartbreaker in five. It seemed as though history would repeat itself the following Sunday at Wisconsin, as the Illini dropped the third set, 25-10, after winning the first two, but thankfully, Illinois turned things around in the fourth to win, 3-1. The third set was the Illini's weakest at Nebraska on Wednesday night as well. Nevertheless, the Illini Faithful could breathe easy tonight, as the Illini did not break stride in the third set, winning the frame, 25-18.
"I've been worried about that every time," said Hambly. "I think the fact that they came back in the second set actually helped us. If we had blown them out like we probably should have, I don't know that they would have come back out with the fight that they had."
"That's something we've talked about," said Birks, "staying prepared in between when we have the break and not losing focus. I think we did a much better job of that today."
The third set began much like the second, as a Stark service run gave the Illini an early 7-3 lead. The Illini pulled out in front 18-10 on a block by Mayers and Viliunas, when a 4-0 run pulled Iowa back within four, 18-14. The Illini called timeout and returned from the break to win the next three straight, and back-to-back kills by Birks completed the sweep as Illinois sealed the third, 25-18.
The Illini are finally back at Huff on Wednesday, Nov. 6, when they host No. 17 Michigan live on the Big Ten Network. The Illini upset the Wolverines in Ann Arbor, 3-2, back on Oct. 5, but the Wolverines will head to Champaign with some momentum after erasing an 0-2 deficit tonight to defeat Ohio State in five sets. The nationally-televised match will begin at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday.