Collen Ward had eight kills and nine digs in the victory over Penn State.
Nov. 11, 2011
Champaign, Ill. - No. 7 Illinois made a little history on Friday night. For the first time ever, the Illini swept the season series from Penn State. After a 2:57 marathon five weeks ago in Happy Valley, Illinois made quick work of the ninth-ranked Nittany Lions at Huff Hall, winning 25-21, 25-23, 28-26 in front of the ninth-best crowd in Huff Hall history - 3,905. The victory moves Illinois back into a tie for second in the Big Ten with Purdue at 12-3 and improves the Illini's overall record to 23-3. Penn State falls to 18-7 overall and 11-4 in the conference.
Illinois was just 6-34 against Penn State until last season, but has won three of the last four against the four-time defending NCAA champions. Illini head coach Kevin Hambly and the players cautioned about putting a lot of stock into that change of events.
"They have won four straight NCAA titles," Hambly said. "Until we start hanging banners and winning championships, then maybe we can say that. Ask me in 20 years an I'll tell you what this win means."
"We're working to be the top team in the country and I think it's just part of the process," senior All-American Michelle Bartsch added. "We've been working hard; harder than I've ever worked here. I don't know if that has to do with the players we have, or if we're just getting tougher as a program, but it's awesome to sweep any team in three."
The win also was significant for the Illini, who had lost three of the last four matches after starting the year 20-0.
"I wouldn't be happy if this is all we're getting out of this turnaround," junior middle blocker Erin Johnson said. "I think it's good and gives us confidence and we know we have to play like this all the time from here on out until the tournament. It shows that what we're doing in practice is working."
Illinois was efficient in getting the victory, hitting .340 for the night and making just three unforced errors. The Illini also had a balanced attack, thanks to some great decisions from setter Annie Luhrsen, who had 30 assists. Bartsch and Liz McMahon had 10 kills apiece to pace the Illinois attack. McMahon, who had six of her kills in the third set, hit .562 without an error. The same can be said for Erin Johnson, who had nine kills in 14 swings without an error for a .643 attack percentage. Senior Colleen Ward had four of her eight kills in the first set.
"That's the best match I've seen her set," Hambly said of Luhrsen's performance. "She's been working really hard and I feel like she's going in the right direction."
Illinois also played with a lot of poise. Penn State controlled the first part of the first set, thanks to the hot-hitting Deja McClendon, who had eight of her 17 kills in the first set. The Illini scored four straight points, including an ace from Bartsch to go in front 14-13 and never trailed after that in the set.
Although Illinois had just three blocks for points, the Orange and Blue got their hands on a lot of Penn State attacks and slowed down the Lions, who made 15 total attack errors while also committing 13 service errors.
Illinois trailed just once in the second set and controlled much of the third set, but each time had to withstand Penn State rallies. In set two, Illinois led 15-10 only to see Penn State tie the score at 23-23. Johnson scored on the back slide and the Lions hit a ball long as Illinois pulled it out.
The third set saw a lot action. The Illini built leads of 10-4 and 18-12 only to see McClendon catch fire again with seven kills in the set to again tie it at 23-23. The Illini had four match points before finally finishing it off on a kill by Bartsch.
Illinois hosts 22nd-ranked Ohio State on Saturday night at Huff.