Jackie Wolfe had 37 assists in her first collegiate start.
Nov. 25, 2009
Evanston, Ill. - The fifth-ranked Illini figured to get a tough match from Northwestern on Wednesday. The Wildcats were winners of five of their last eight and came into the week with a chance at an at-large bid for the NCAA Tournament. The Illini, though, had another challenge besides the charging Wildcats - they had to play the match without its starting setter Hillary Haen, who was under the weather. Freshman Jackie Wolfe made her first career start at the setter position and finished the night with 37 assists and nine digs.
Illinois overcame a 22-14 first-set deficit to win that 26-24 and held on for a hard-fought 26-24, 25-21, 11-25, 25-23 victory to improve to 24-4 overall and 16-3 in the Big Ten. The win locks up second-place for the Illini, now winners of 15 of their last 16 matches, with just one match remaining in the regular season, Saturday at No. 13 Minnesota. Northwestern falls to 7-12 in the conference and 16-15 overall.
"I thought Jackie was tough tonight and the team responded really well and played their hearts out," Illinois head coach Kevin Hambly said. "Tonight we found out what we were made of."
It took awhile for Illinois to get going. Northwestern had kills on its first six attacks as the Wildcats bolted to a 7-2 lead. The Wildcats extended the lead to 13-7 and 19-11 behind the hot hand of Naomi Johnson, who had seven of her match-high 17 kills in the opening set.
Trailing 22-14, the Illini responded first off the service arm of Wolfe, who brought the Illini to within 22-16, then Kylie McCulley, who served five straight points to tie the score. McCulley (11 kills) served an ace and junior Laura DeBruler had a big kill on a knuckleball just inside the line. DeBruler had a team-high 16 kills, putting her over the 1,600-kill mark for her career.
Sophomore Michelle Bartsch and junior Johannah Bangert teamed on a block in the rally as well. After Northwestern regained the lead at 24-23 and was serving for the set, Michelle Bartsch put away an overpass and Bangert served out the set.
"It was impressive," Hambly said about the first-set comeback. "We battled. We just battled."
Illinois scored three straight points to take a 3-2 lead in set two and never trailed from there. Although Northwestern scored four straight points, two on kills from Johnson, to tie it a 19-19, then again at 21-21, the Illini again used their block, first one from Bangert and DeBruler and then Bartsch (11 kills) and Johnson to take the second set.
"We played really steady the whole time in the second set," Hambly said. "Jackie was running the show, and we sided out like we needed to. We didn't hit for a high efficiency, but we played great defense."
Illinois had 12.5 blocks on the night, including nine block assists from Bartsch and eight from the nation's blocks leader Bangert.
Northwestern dominated the serve-receive game in the third set, siding out at 100 percent (11 of 11).
The fourth set was well played by both teams. Illinois hit .382 to Northwestern's .250. Illinois jumped to a 7-2 lead, but the Wildcats clawed back into it, taking a 16-14 lead following a pair of aces from Johnson. The set was tied at 17, 18, 19, 20, 21 and 22 before a block from Bartsch and Bangert gave the Illini a two-point cushion. After Northwestern sided out, Illinois ended it on a kill from DeBruler.
Illinois was already minus one of its regular starters in libero Ashley Edinger, who suffered a season-ending knee injury. Sophomore Rachel Feldman once again responded in that spot with a career-best 21 digs.
"We were prepared for it, we just didn't know how we would respond," Hambly said of the setter change. "It took a while for us to get going, but it demonstrates we have a competitive team that wants to find a way to win."