Erin Johnson (12) had eight blocks, five kills and hit .417 vs. Dayton.
Dec. 4, 2009
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - Illinois is headed back to the Sweet 16. The fifth-ranked Illini defeated No. 24 Dayton 26-28, 25-8, 25-17, 25-18 in the NCAA Second Round to advance to next weekend's Stanford Regional in Palo Alto, Calif. The Illini (26-5) got 22 kills and 16 digs from All-American Laura DeBruler and 18.5 team blocks to overcome a slow start and defeat the Flyers who finish the season an impressive 30-4. Illinois will meet either Southern California or Hawaii on Friday, Dec. 11 in the Sweet 16 Round.
DeBruler hit an incredible .455 for the match and tallied exactly half of her kills in the first set as Illinois battled back from a 17-12 deficit to take it to a deuce game. Outside hitter Kylie McCulley had five of her 17 kills in the set and served three straight points as the Illini took their first lead at 23-22. Dayton battled back before finally finishing off the set on a cross-court shot from outside hitter Amanda Cowdrey, who had a team-best 17 kills for the night.
"Their middle attack torched us in the first set," Illinois head coach Kevin Hambly said. "We had to get them out of system and we weren't. If we didn't get them out of system, we didn't have an answer for them. We did a good job of serving otherwise they would still be scoring on us. "
Dayton used its height advantage, particularly its 6-6 middle Lindsey Fletemier to penetrate the Illini defense. In sets 2-4, however, the Illini block came alive. Junior Johannah Bangert and freshman Erin Johnson were dominant after that. Bangert had 10 blocks while Johnson had two solo blocks and six block assists. Sophomore right side Michelle Bartsch assisted on eight of those blocks and finished just behind DeBruler with 15 digs.
"I thought Erin Johnson changed the match," Hambly said. "I think she had four blocks in that (2nd) set alone. It took a while for our serve to wear them down. The combination of the serving and the blocking defense was what changed the tide in that match."
Illinois forced Dayton to hit -.179 in the second set as the Illini tallied six blocks. The Flyers recovered to hit .121 and .064 in the third and fourth sets, respectively, but Illinois was in control in both. The second set had three ties and just one lead change, the third set the Illini led wire-to-wire and the fourth set they trailed just once.
"Their block is as good as the best block in the country," said Dayton head coach Kelly Sheffield. "We have not played a block like this all season. We knew they were good, but their blocking was awfully impressive."
Even when Illinois wasn't stuffing the Dayton hitters, they redirected it enough so that the back row could make plays. That's what sophomore Rachel Feldman did, tallying 26 digs, the most ever by an Illinois player in an NCAA Tournament match.
"I can't speak for the history, because I've only been here five years, but I can speak to her effort," Hambly said of Feldman's performance "Her effort was remarkable. They went after her, both serving and with offense, and I thought she did an incredible job digging balls."
Illinois lost five-set matches to Dayton during the regular season in each of the past two seasons, giving Illinois a little perspective for just how strong the Atlantic Ten champions were.
"I think it's good we had that history, because we knew how good of a team they were," said junior setter Hillary Haen, who tallied 52 assists. "We knew not to let up, because they could really take it to us."
Haen also said that going through the rigors of the Big Ten schedule and a non-conference slate that was ranked ninth in the country were important in recovering from a tough-first set defeat.
"We have lost first sets before and come back from it," Haen said. "So I don't think we got nervous, and we knew that we ended the first set really well. But it does give you a lot of confidence to come back and really give it to a team and keep them in single digits. That helped realize the kind of fighting attitude we needed to maintain for the rest of the match."
Illinois is now 20-3 at home in NCAA Tournament matches and reaches the Sweet 16 for the 11th time in school history. The Illini are making their first back-to-back Sweet 16 appearances since reaching the round five straight years from 1985-89. The players believe that experience well help them as they attempt to advance to the school's six Regional Final and perhaps its third Final Four.
"I think we knew the work that it took all season long," Haen said. "There was no point in the season where we could let up because you need to peak at the end of the season. I think it also helps that now we know we have to elevate our level of play even more to go to California and compete as hard as we can."