Second-Half Heroics Lead Illini to Upset of No. 17 Michigan
Nov. 6, 2013
"[It feels] really good," said senior libero Jennifer Beltran, who led both teams with 25 digs in the match. "It's something our team has talked about a lot, fighting and having that will to just go make scrappy plays. We definitely saw that in ourselves today. We did struggle with that in games one and two, but we made the change which is what matters. That's what defines teams and shows their character. It was really nice to see us fight and put ourselves out there."
Sophomore outside hitter Jocelynn Birks continued her dominance of Michigan, tallying 22 kills in the match to successfully carry on her trend of 20-kill performances against the Wolverines; she has done so in all four contests in her career against UM, including recording 25 the last time Michigan came to Huff Hall. The performance marked her 17th career 20-kill match, a figure that just five Illini have bested in Illinois history, while also tabbing her 22nd career double-double with 11 digs.
Sophomore Alexis Viliunas put up a career-high 55 assists, tabbing a double-double with 13 digs. Defensive players Danielle Davis and Ali Stark each put up nine digs, which along with Beltran's 25 helped the Illini narrowly out-dig the Wolverines, 76-75.
The Illinois blocking unit was a difference-maker late in the night, putting up a total of 13.0 blocks in the match, including nine through the final two sets. Mayers led the match with eight block assists, Birks totaled six, and Dorn and McMahon each had four blocks, including one solo for McMahon.
"The block was doing a nice job funneling balls to me, which made it really easy to do my job," said Beltran. "Hitters were taking big swings. It was really cool."
The Illini serving game also helped turn the tide in the second half, as Illinois put up four aces in the third set alone to out-serve Michigan 6-2 in the match. Birks led the pack with two aces, and Davis, Beltran, Stark and Courtney Abrahamovich each had one.
"Every piece of what we ask them to do is important and if one of those things breaks down, then we break down," said Head Coach Kevin Hambly. "To do what we did tonight it can't, and it was great to see them stay tough and stand up and do their job."
Lexi Erwin led the Michigan attack with 20 kills, followed by 14 each from Jennifer Cross and Molly Toon. Libero Tiffany Morales paced the defense with 22 digs, and Brittany Lee, Ally Sabol and Erwin all had double-digit digs. Cross went up for four of the team's seven blocks, and setter Lexi Dannemiller tallied 49 assists and eight digs.
Michigan used an 11-2 run to jump out to a daunting 15-5 lead to begin the match. The Illini battled back with an 8-1 run to pull within three, 16-13, but the Orange and Blue were unable to come any closer, dropping the opening set, 25-18.
The Illini showed fight in the second set, battling from down 11-6 to tie it at 14 off three straight kills by Birks. The Wolverines regrouped after calling timeout, pushing back ahead 17-14, but a Mayers kill and a Birks ace pulled Illinois back within one, 17-16. However, a net serve shifted the momentum back to Michigan, who ran away with the set, 25-19.
Illinois spent extra time down in the locker room during the break, leading to a team delay red card and a 1-0 start for Michigan in the third set. However, the free point certainly seemed worth finishing the halftime speech, as the Illini exploded out of the intermission ahead 9-3.
"The biggest thing is that Kevin got us fired up," said Beltran. "We just needed people to do certain things, everyone to just do their roles, and that was something we talked about downstairs and it was just about that will."
Michigan slowly pulled itself back into the game, but an ace by Abrahamovich, Illinois' fourth of the set, made it 21-14 Illini. The Wolverines continued to fight, coming within two, 23-21, but a kill by Birks and a solo block by McMahon put the finishing touches on the frame to hand Illinois the set win, 25-21.
"You saw a whole different Illinois team in the last three sets just like you saw a whole different Michigan team in the first two sets," said Hambly. "A lot of it is about the mentality and attitude you play with because the margins are really thin here. I don't know what separates these teams as far as who's better. I just think it was about who was willing to push, who pushed for three sets."
The Orange and Blue carried their momentum into set four, holding a small lead throughout the majority of the set, then pulling ahead 16-10 on a string of kills by Criswell. The Illini continued to pull further and further away with the help of a lights-out blocking unit who totaled six stuffs in the frame, taking the fourth, 25-15, and sending the match to five.
Illinois' motivation continued deep into the fifth set, as the Orange and Blue jumped ahead 5-2 on a Criswell kill and maintained the advantage through the entire final set. After the Illini led 11-6, Michigan pulled within three, 13-10, on a Cross kill, but kills by Birks and Criswell sealed the deal as Illinois won the match with a 15-10 victory in the fifth.
"We really just focused on each person executing their role, and I think that's what really helped us out tonight," said Criswell. "The block was getting good touches so that in turn helps the defense, and then we can get a good pass and take big swings. Everybody doing their role was what contributed to this win."
"You never want to be down 0-2, but this is the result you would want to get," said Hambly. "To see a team look dead to rights that was really struggling to have any confidence, and to see them turn it around. I don't think people realize how hard that is. To make that change and see the team absolutely put their hearts out there was great to see. Sometimes there are opportunities to forge ahead on a win like this. It all depends on what we do next and what we learn from this."
The Illini will have a chance to answer that question on Saturday, Nov. 9, when the homestand continues with a visit by No. 13 Michigan State. The Spartans were the final Big Ten team to lose a conference match, opening conference play 6-0 including a sweep of Illinois in East Lansing, but MSU has struggled of late, going 1-5 over its last six matches to sit just a half match ahead of Illinois in the standings at 7-5 (18-6 overall). The match will be streamed live on the Big Ten Digital Network beginning at 7 p.m.