Efficient Illini Blank Wildcats on Thanksgiving Eve
Nov. 27, 2013
Champaign, Ill. – No. 18 Illinois extended its home winning streak to six matches this evening, capturing its third-straight 3-0 victory at Huff Hall with a sweep of Northwestern. The win helps solidify the Illini’s likelihood of earning a favorable bid to the NCAA Tournament and clinches a top-four finish in the Big Ten standings. Illinois improves to 16-13 (12-7 Big Ten), securing a winning record in 2013 for the 31st time in 40 seasons as a varsity program. In contrast, the loss chips away at Northwestern’s playoff hopes, as the Wildcats drop to 16-15 (8-11 Big Ten).
“I thought against a very good team, we played pretty good volleyball,” said Head Coach Kevin Hambly. “In the beginning, I thought we put pressure on them early with our serve. We did a nice job of attacking. Lex was really running the offense and put us in some good situations, and that put more pressure on them.
“Overall, I’m happy with the way we played in the first and third sets. I thought we were a little lackluster in the second. They [Northwestern] played well, we saw that last time. I was not happy in the break, and neither were some of our senior leaders on the team, but they figured it out, which is great.”
Sophomore outside hitter Jocelynn Birks was on fire in the match, hammering 16 kills while hitting .316, including slamming seven kills and no errors in the final set. Juniors Liz McMahon and Morganne Criswell each recorded 11 kills, as McMahon had one of her most efficient matches, hitting .500, including seven kills in the first set. McMahon scored the first point of the second set and in doing so she registered her 1,000th career kill, joining a select company of talented attackers in the 1,000 kill club.
“Jocelynn was moving the ball around and doing a nice job,” said Hambly. “I think Liz really set the tone early. They had to account for her more than they did last time. Lizzie got going early especially; we need her to be that way all the time.”
In the back row, it seemed like nothing could get past Jennifer Beltran, who put up 20 digs in the three-setter to inch ever closer to making Big Ten history. The senior libero is still in fifth place among Big Ten players in career digs, but is now just 33 away from marking down the second-most career digs in conference history.
“She’s been a stud for us,” Hambly said of his libero. “She passed great, she played great defense, and she’s leading. She’s a tremendous leader. People talk about why we’ve made a little run here towards the end. It’s a lot about Jen and her play and what she brings to the team.
“It’s going to be hard, because the next match is Senior Night. I’m not saying goodbye, because we [expect] to be in the tournament, but I am going to miss that kid a bunch…And Courtney [Abrahamovich] does more than people know. She does a lot.”
Helping Beltran on defense was Danielle Davis with nine digs and Birks had an additional six. Up at the net, Anna Dorn led the Illini with four block assists, and Maddie Mayers and Criswell each had three. Dorn and Mayers combined for seven kills on the night and Mayers registered her second career service ace. Ali Stark had a key ace in the first set, and Birks continued her hot serving, landing a pair of ace tonight to record 10 in the past seven matches.
Alexis Viliunas had a fabulous night at setter, registering 38 assists and landing four kills.
The Fighting Illini did a good job of containing the Wildcats, holding NU to a .183 hitting percentage and leading 49-35 in kills. Senior Stephanie Holthus put up a majority of the offense, tabbing 13 kills, and Yewande Akanbi added seven in the final two sets. Freshman setter Caleigh Ryan tallied 29 assists in the match, and libero Caroline Niedospial tabbed 12 digs. Middle blocker Maggie Burnham led the match with five of the Wildcats’ seven blocks.
“They’re banged up,” said Hambly. “(Monica) McGreal was doing a great job, I think she hit .290 in the last 4 matches, and she sprained her ankle in the match against Ohio State, so they’ve got to find a lineup that works for them. I though they played well, they played hard.”
Illinois got out of the gate quickly, running up an 8-4 lead on a kill by Birks. Northwestern forced its way back within one, 10-9, but a 5-0 run served out by Stark put Illinois back in charge, 16-10. After the Illini led 21-14, Northwestern put together a small run, but the Illini finished strong, taking the first set, 25-18, on McMahon’s seventh kill of the night. The Illini hit .500 in the set, as McMahon and Birks struck at .566 and Dorn and Mayers hit 1.000 with a combined five kills.
The Illini raced out to a 10-4 lead in the second with the help of three Criswell kills, but before they knew it, Northwestern had crept back in, 13-12, and an Illini attack error tied the score at 14. The remainder of the frame was neck and neck, until Illini claimed set point, 24-22, on an error by Holthus. A block by Burnham and Dutchman erased the first attempt, but the Illini replied with a block of their own by Dorn and McMahon, the fourth for the Illini in the set, to outlast the Wildcats, 25-23, and take a 2-0 lead into the break.
Niedospial served the Wildcats to a 3-0 lead to start the third, but a service error put Beltran behind the service line, who got the Illini in front 4-3, and three kills by Birks pushed the Orange and Blue up 10-4. Northwestern tried to battle back, cutting the lead to four, 14-10, but that was the most the Wildcats could muster, as Illinois took the set, 25-17, to win its 11th straight set at Huff Hall.
“We felt a lot better coming out in the third set and not backing down like we did the first time we played them,” said Birks. “Taking it in straight sets is something we talked about, especially knowing that they would come back fighting. We needed to stay on it.”
Illinois closes out the regular season at home on Saturday, Nov. 30, hosting No. 11 Minnesota at 7 p.m. CT. The Golden Gophers sit one spot ahead of the Illini in the Big Ten standings with a 26-6 (14-5 Big Ten) record, having clinched their top three finish tonight with a 3-1 win over Wisconsin. Minnesota is the only team in the Big Ten that the Illini have not yet faced this season, an aspect that Coach Hambly believes will help Illinois prepare for the postseason.
“This is a chance for us to get ready for the tournament,” said Hambly. “I think that it’s going to be a match against a great Minnesota team that will be a good test for us. We can see what the tournament teams are like. I feel like we’ve been getting better and better every week and I’d like to see that continue.”