Women's Volleyball
Illini Knock Off No. 13 Michigan State for Third-Straight Victory

Ali Stark did her job in the back row, tallying 11 digs, three aces and five assists in the match.
Ali Stark did her job in the back row, tallying 11 digs, three aces and five assists in the match.

Nov. 9, 2013

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Champaign, Ill. - Illinois volleyball captured its third-straight victory this evening, taking down No. 13 Michigan State, 3-1 (25-19, 21-25, 25-17, 25-19), to even its season record at 12-12 (8-6 Big Ten) and move into a tie with the Spartans (19-7, 8-6 Big Ten) for fourth place in the Big Ten standings. The Fighting Illini showed tremendous improvement from their last meeting with the Spartans, when MSU cruised to a 3-set victory in East Lansing on Oct. 4.

"We talked a lot about just attacking the whole time," said sophomore outside hitter Jocelynn Birks. "I think the first time they played us we backed down the minute they started coming at us. We've been working on that with everyone, not just them. I think it was the fight and the attacking."

"I thought we just worked really hard and extended the fight we had for one of the longest periods of time I've seen us so far," said junior Liz McMahon. "With the exception for the first part of the second set, we battled the whole time."

Tonight's match marked the 17th ranked opponent the Illini have faced this season, as Illinois picked up its eighth win over a top-25 team to reach the .500 mark for the first time since Sept. 14 (4-4). To be eligible for the NCAA Tournament, the Illini must finish the season .500 or better, and this week's sweep of Michigan and Michigan State represents a huge step in that direction.

"It feels good," said junior Liz McMahon, "but we could easily lose that eligibility so it's something more that we have to continue, learn from, and know what it feels like, and then keep it going for the rest of the season."

Jocelynn Birks had another dominating night on the outside, wracking up her second-straight 20-kill match with 21 kills and tabbing a double-double with 10 digs. McMahon was consistent on the attack all night, hitting .367 with 15 kills, including six in the final set, while also putting up six blocks at the net. Middle blocker Anna Dorn was lights-out, stuffing six blocks and going 6-for-7 (.857) on the attack.

On defense, Jennifer Beltran registered her fifth 20-dig match in the past six outings, leading the Illini with 21 digs and adding four assists and her first kill of the season on a well-placed overpass. Danielle Davis and Ali Stark played solid back row rotations including demonstrating fantastic serving, as Stark served up three aces and 11 digs to go with five assists, and Davis tallied 15 digs and two aces, serving up a key 9-0 run in the third set. Alexis Viliunas tallied 39 assists and nine digs, adding a service ace and a block, and Courtney Abrahamovich chipped in an ace as well.

For Michigan State, Senior CLASS Award Finalist Lauren Wicinski led the Spartans with 17 kills, followed closely by freshman Allyssah Fitterer, who hit .520 with 15 kills and five blocks. Senior middle Alexis Mathews led the match with eight blocks to help MSU out-block Illinois, 12.0-9.5. Libero Kori Moster led the match with 24 digs, and setters Kristen Kelsay (23) and Halle Peterson (20) combined for 43 assists.

The two teams tied with 55 kills apiece, but the Illini were more efficient, hitting .271 as compared to just .198 by the Spartans, which was aided by the Illini defense, who out-dug MSU, 74-61.

Illinois jumped out to an early 4-2 lead off an ace by Stark, and a second Stark ace sparked an Illinois run to make it 17-11 Illini. After a third ace, this one by Viliunas, the Illini were the first to 20, leading 20-15, when a 3-0 run by MSU pulled the Spartans back within two, 20-18. The Illini came out firing from a timeout for back-to-back kills by McMahon and Birks, and an error by Wicinski closed the frame in favor of the Illini, 25-19.

Michigan State came out hungry in set two, opening up a quick 11-2 lead behind a serving run by Kori Moster. Katie Stadick came in for Mayers in the middle, and one play later laid down a kill to stop the run at 9-0, and the disciplined Illini battled back to within four, 15-11.  A kill by Birks pulled Illinois even closer, 16-13, but a pair of errors helped MSU back ahead, 20-14. Illinois fought back to within four, 21-17, on an MSU attack error, but a Reinig kill made it Spartans set point. A block by Stadick and McMahon erased Michigan State's first attempt, but Reinig followed with a kill on the next play to even the match at one set apiece with a 25-21 victory in the second.

"In the middle of the set, we just talked about the fact that we backed off completely and let them come at us and said we need to make this change, attack them, and they'll back down," said Birks. "And they did end up winning because we didn't have the time to get those points, but I think we came back and it was a momentum carrier into the third [set]."

"It set the tone," McMahon said of their fight in the set, "to say we're not going away."

Davis began the third set with an ace, helping the Illini jump out to a 5-1 lead. MSU pushed back to tie the score at five with a block and two kills by Fitterer, and soon the score was again tied, 10-10. A service error by Kristen Kelsay gave Davis the ball back, and she took the Illini on a 9-0 run to take a giant 19-10 lead. Birks extended the lead to 23-12 with her eighth kill of the set. MSU would not go quietly, winning five of the next six points, but a block by Criswell and Mayers sealed the deal for a 25-17 win and a 2-1 Illini match lead.

A block by Mayers and Viliunas helped Illinois take a rapid 6-2 lead in the fourth, and a McMahon kill extended the advantage to 13-7. Three MSU blocks helped pull the Spartans within two, 13-11, but a Birks kill kept them from getting any closer, soon leading 15-11. A Dorn kill sparked a 4-0 run to make it 23-16, and a smash by Birks put the match away, as the Illini upset the Spartans, 3-1, with a 25-19 win in the fourth.

"I just feel like it's been some time coming that we've had the opportunity to [sweep a week] and we finally continued to execute," said Head Coach Kevin Hambly. "I liked what [McMahon and Birks] were talking about in that they just fought for the whole match. They understand better that each point is precious. I think it's that simple; we've had our opportunities where we had chances to win a couple sets there and we let them slip away.

"We're way more concerned with playing at a high level and going one match at a time. Certainly we need to get to five hundred which we're finally at, but now we need to get ahead of that and I hope this is a sign of things to come and that we're going to continue to compete the way we competed tonight."

For the first time in a month, the Illini will have a full week to prepare for their next match, when the Illini return to Huff Hall to host Indiana and Purdue next Friday and Saturday night. The Illini look to sweep the season series with the Hoosiers at 7 p.m. on Nov. 15, then hope to come out on top with rival Purdue, ranked 14th in this week's AVCA Poll, at 7 p.m. the following night. Both matches will be streamed live on the Big Ten Digital Network on FightingIllini.com.