Illini's Winning Streak Stopped at Six by No. 2 PSU
Nov. 23, 2013
University Park, Pa. - The Fighting Illini volleyball team's recent winning streak came to an end tonight, as No. 2 Penn State bested the Orange and Blue in four sets at Rec Hall. The Nittany Lions took the first two sets by scores of 25-20 and 25-17, but the Illini battled back to win the third set, 25-23. However, Illinois was unable to complete the full comeback, falling, 25-16, in the fourth to drop the match, 3-1. With the victory, Penn State clinched a share of the 2013 Big Ten title, its 16th since joining the conference in 1991, improving to 26-2 (17-1 Big Ten). Meanwhile, the Fighting Illini drop to 15-13 (11-7 Big Ten).
Sophomore outside hitter Jocelynn Birks exploded for 22 kills in the match, tying her season high, which included 10 in the third set alone to lead the Illini to a win in the frame. It was Birks' 19th career 20-kill match, which moves her into a tie with Tracey Marshall (1996-99) for fourth all-time at Illinois--and she's still just a sophomore. Her fellow outsides combined for 15 additional kills, as Liz McMahon had eight and Morganne Criswell had seven.
In the back row, Jennifer Beltran posted the 38th 20-dig match of her career, putting up a match-high 20, and Alexis Viliunas notched her second double-double of the weekend with 14 digs and 32 assists. Danielle Davis tallied 11 digs through the first two sets, before being replaced by Julia Conard, who had five. Ali Stark pitched in 10 additional digs, along with the team's lone ace.
The Illini block was strong on the night, totaling 10.0 stuffs, including six block assists by Anna Dorn. McMahon added three block assists, and true freshman Katie Stadick had two assists and a block solo in the third set.
Across the court, Ariel Scott and Deja McClendon tied for the team lead with 18 kills apiece for the Nittany Lions, while Katie Slay added nine. Micha Hancock tallied 52 assists, but the Illini serve receive held the nation's leading server without an ace to accompany her five errors. Megan Courtney led the Nittany Lion back row with 19 digs, followed by a double-double for McClendon with 18 digs to go along with two aces. The Illini held the NCAA's best blocking unit to below their average of 3.09 per set, but Penn State did put up a total of 10.5, led by Nia Grant with five.
The Fighting Illini committed an uncharacteristic amount of errors (due largely to the strong Penn State defense), to hit just .120 on the night, but the Orange and Blue held Penn State to .233, well under the Nittany Lions' season average of .319.
Nia Grant served the Nittany Lions to a 3-0 lead to open the match, and that would prove all the cushion Penn State would need, as the Illini kept the score close but were unable to put together the necessary run to overtake the lead, falling, 25-20 in the first.
The second set began knotted at 3-3, but a pair of Illini errors helped PSU gain a 6-3 lead, and once again the Orange and Blue could not make the comeback, falling behind 22-13. After a timeout, Illinois was able to put together a small run to close the gap to six, 23-17, but Penn State stopped the clock and came back from the break to win the final two, heading into halftime up 2-0 with a 25-17 win in the second.
The Illini got out to a hot start in the third, going up 5-2 off four kills by Birks. Illinois kept the momentum going to take a 15-7 lead, but after being ahead 20-14, Penn State began to creep back, cutting the lead in half, 20-17. The Nittany Lions continued to fight, pulling within one, 23-22, when a Birks kill made it Illinois set point. Scott got a kill to again cut the lead to one, but Birks finished it off, crushing her 10th kill of the set to earn a 25-23 win and keep the Illini alive.
Illinois opened the fourth set ahead 2-1, but Penn State used an 8-1 run to take a 9-3 lead, and the Nittany Lions remained on top for the remainder of the match. Back-to-back blocks by Stadick brought the Illini back within three, 14-11, but Penn State forced its way back up 24-15 with a 5-0 run and took the set, 25-16, to win the match in four.
The Illini return home on Wednesday for the final series of the 2013 regular season. Illinois hosts in-state rival Northwestern at 7 p.m. on Nov. 27, where the Orange and Blue will be looking to avenge their heartbreaking loss in Evanston from Oct. 23. Illinois then closes out the year with a visit by No. 11 Minnesota on Saturday, Nov. 30, on Senior Night.