Dec. 13, 2013
By Lexi Shurilla, fightingillini.com staff writer
In Perspective: Illinois' season finishes with a loss against the Purdue Boilermakers. The rivalry between Purdue and Illinois was on fire inside State Farm Center Friday night. Although Purdue and the Illini split their regular season match-ups, the Boilermakers sparked at the start of match and never let up, going on to sweep Illinois, 3-0.
"They played tough and they executed," Illinois head coach Kevin Hambly said of his opponent. "The first set we had a great opportunity to go up 1-0 and I thought that they made some plays at the end and dug a couple balls and then they took advantage of it. I think for us, the whole time I never really felt like we got in a great rhythm in anything really offensively or defensively."
"I think throughout the entire match, not just that [first] set, we weren't attacking and executing like we should have," Jocelynn Birks said. "Even when we had a couple points on them, we backed down and stopped executing. They were fighting and scrapping and executing the entire time."
On Center Stage: Purdue managed to have a very balanced offensive performance from its squad, but it was how the Boilermakers executed their defense that truly tested the Illini.
"We knew their defense was good," Hambly said. "We knew it would be a defensive battle. We just made too many errors. We had 12 hitting errors and then made some swings that got blocked on as well. I thought we got impatient because we weren't scoring and made some bad choices."
By the Numbers: With a similar storyline for the opening two sets, Illinois played the comeback kids for most of the game, but the smaller Purdue team didn't have any trouble handling the Illini in all three sets as Illinois hit .098 in the second frame, and .048 in the third. The Boilermakers didn't hit high either, going .184 and .167 in the final two sets, but it was enough to overtake the Illini in three.
"I'm disappointed with how we played tonight, because I think we could have played better, but I'm not disappointed with the season," Hambly said. "We took on a schedule that was the toughest we could take on and they stood up to it and they fought. I'm really proud with what they were able to accomplish."
According to the NCAA's SOS rankings, Illinois played the nation's most difficult schedule this season, with the Illini playing an NCAA-leading 20 matches against teams in the RPI top 30, including eight vs. top-10 opponents. Illinois finished 12-8 in the Big Ten, arguably the strongest conference in the nation, with seven teams advancing to the NCAA Regional.
Subplot: The Champaign Regional made for an advantage for the Illini on and off the court, as the team was able to stay home during finals week and have a home crowd. The venue for the Regional Semifinals was State Farm Center instead of familiar Huff Hall for the Orange & Blue, but the feeling inside was the same energetic group of fans.
"I thought it was incredible, especially the first set when we were up," Hambly said of the atmosphere. "It's too bad we couldn't take advantage of it. I could have used a little bit of help from the crowd tonight, and we didn't earn it. We needed to do some positive things for them to celebrate. But I thought for a big, vast arena, it felt like a great place to play volleyball."
There were 4,631 fans to cheer on the Illini against Purdue, and over 16 matches, the Illini have brought in the second-largest total fan attendance in school history, with 45,240. The Illini finished the season with an average crowd size of the 3,117 per match, which sets a new all-time record for the University of Illinois.
Final Look: Illinois finishes the season 18-15 and graduates two seniors, Jennifer Beltran and Courtney Abrahamovich. Purdue will face 12th-seeded Wisconsin in the Regional Final on Saturday night at State Farm Center, after the Badgers took down the Florida State Seminoles in the Sweet 16.
"Learn for next year, because I know their season starts right now," Beltran said of tonight's loss. "This one's done and it's on to the next one. I just want them to hopefully learn from this and then take it to next year and make another run at it, because they've got another shot."