No. 11 Minnesota Tops No. 18 Illini in Regular-Season Finale
Nov. 30, 2013
Champaign, Ill. – No. 11 Minnesota came out firing and took advantage of early Illinois errors to hand the Fighting Illini their first loss at Huff Hall since Mid-October. The Golden Gophers cruised to a 25-10 win in the first set, before the Illini regrouped but fell 25-19 in the second. Illinois fought hard in the third and had two set points but ended up falling 27-25 to lose the match in straight sets. With the win, Minnesota finishes in third place in the Big Ten standings at 27-6 (15-5 Big Ten), while the Illini end the season tied with Wisconsin for fourth with a regular season record of 16-14 (12-8 Big Ten).
“I’m disappointed in how we started,” said Head Coach Kevin Hambly. “I’m okay with how we ended, we just had chances we didn’t take advantage of. It was a struggle. We made it out of the first set and just gave it to them. We didn’t think we fought. I thought we fought in the second set, and then we started to play a little better in the third, but it was too late. You can’t do that at home against a really good team like Minnesota. We’ll see what it means for us. I think we’re secure in the tournament, but once we’re on the road we’ll have to battle and we’ll see.”
After a slow start, senior Jennifer Beltran put up 11 digs in the third set to finish the night with a match-best 17, increasing her career total to 2,179 digs and moving her past Michigan’s Stesha Selsky ‘07 and into fourth place all-time in Big Ten history. Alexis Viliunas helped her libero out defense, tallying a double-double with 26 assists and 10 digs, while adding three kills on the night.
Sophomore Jocelynn Birks was tops on the Illini with nine kills in the match, her first time being held to single digits since Oct. 4 in a 3-set loss at then-No. 9 Michigan State. Liz McMahon finished the night with seven kills, going 4-for-5 in the third set, and Anna Dorn and Morganne Criswell each had five. Like McMahon, Dorn really got going in the third set, attacking for a perfect four kills on four swings.
For the Golden Gophers, Tori Dixon led the match with 11 kills, hitting .400, following by Ashley Wittman and Daly Santana, with eight apiece. Setters Alexandra Palmer and Katie Schau put up 19 and 14 assists, respectively, and Santana led the team with 15 digs. Libero Lindsey Lawmaster tallied 12 digs and Wittman added 10. Hannah Tapp was unstoppable at the net, stuffing 11 blocks on the night to help the Golden Gophers out-block the Illini 14.5 to 3.0.
“They didn’t error and we did,” said Hambly of his opponents. “They were physical and they made some adjustments when they had to. They’ve gone to a 6-2 offense and I thought that was a good adjustment for them.”
Following the match, Beltran and Courtney Abrahamovich were honored on Senior Night, celebrating their four years of solid commitment to the Fighting Illini.
“They are great leaders, great people, and they have really developed in their time here at Illinois,” Hambly said of the senior pair. “It’s hard to say goodbye to them. I’m glad it’s not over. I’m glad we’ll have some time at the tournament. I’m going to miss them and it’ll be hard. I want to extend this as long as possible with them because they’re great kids.”
The Golden Gophers jumped out to an 8-0 lead to begin the first set and never looked back, extending the advantage to 15 to take the set, 25-10.
The second set began neck and neck, soon tied at 6-6, but a 3-0 run by Minnesota helped the Golden Gophers to a small lead, which they held onto for the remainder of the frame, taking a 2-0 lead with a 25-19 win in the second.
The third set was as close as they come, as the frame featured 18 tie scores and eight lead changes. After trailing 17-15, Illinois came back to take a 19-18 lead on back-to-back kills by McMahon and Birks. Minnesota jumped back in front 23-21, but the Illini won three straight to reach set point, 24-23. Nora tied the score at 24, but Criswell put the Illini back ahead, 25-24. However, Nora helped power the Golden Gophers back in front, scoring two of the final three points of the match, to hand Minnesota a 27-25 win as the Gophers pulled off the win in three.
The Illini will learn their NCAA Tournament fate on Sunday, Dec. 1, during the NCAA Selection Show which airs at 8:30 p.m. on ESPNU. The first and second rounds of the tournament will take place from Dec. 5-7 at 16 different campus sites, the hosts of which will be announced during the show. The winners of each location will advance to one of four NCAA Regional sites, one of which will be hosted by Illinois at State Farm Center on Dec. 13-14. Should Illinois advance to the third round of the tournament, the Orange and Blue will enjoy a home court advantage at the Center, but Champaign will host the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight regardless of Illinois’ performance next weekend.