Women's Volleyball
Illini Top USC to Advance to First NCAA Title Match

Senior Colleen Ward came up big with a career-high 27 kills to lead the Illini past USC.
Senior Colleen Ward came up big with a career-high 27 kills to lead the Illini past USC.

Dec. 15, 2011

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SAN ANTONIO, Texas - Illinois freshman Liz McMahon described her first Final Four experience as "surreal." The freshman had five kills in eight swings in the fifth and deciding set to lift the third-seed Fighting Illini to a 25-27, 25-18, 25-22, 18-25, 15-10 win over seventh-seeded and the top team in the final AP poll USC. The victory advances Illinois to its first national championship match in school history against ninth-seeded UCLA.

For much of the night, it was a chess match to try to get the big block with 6-6 McMahon paired up with USC's Alex Jupiter. The USC outside hitter is a leading candidate for the Player of the Year in the country and she demonstrated it several times on Thursday night, with 32 kills in 83 swings and a .241 hitting percentage, but Illinois head coach Kevin Hambly said a big difference was his team having more weapons than the Women of Troy.

For just the second time in school history, two different players contributed 20-20 performances. First team All-American Colleen Ward paved the way with 27 kills in 71 swings, the second most by an Illini player in a postseason match. Ward added a career-best 22 digs while senior third team All-American Michelle Bartsch had 22 kills and 22 digs. That marked just the second time that an Illini tandem has posted 20-20 performance in match. Erin Borske and Mary (Coleman) Hambly did it against Ohio State on Sept. 22, 1995.

"I think the difference in the match was we had more balance," Illinois head coach Hambly said. "We had more than just Jupiter. We had Ward. We had Bartsch. And then Lizzy stepped up. And Erin Johnson was great tonight. We had more people we could go to in the fifth set. We weren't as worn down."

Illinois hit .375 in the fifth set and sided out at 80 percent while having just two attack errors. Besides McMahon, Bartsch had three kills in six attacks and Ward had two kills. Jupiter, meanwhile, hit just .091 with two kills. The Illini remain a perfect 7-0 in five-set matches.

"In the fifth set we were fortunate we got the matchup we liked with Lizzy on her," Hambly said. "And I thought that made a big difference, especially at the end of the match."

Besides that match-up, the Illini got Ward at the serving line with her big booming serve in a critical situation and she delivered. With Illinois trailing 9-8, Ward hit a cross-court shot to tie it, then served four straight points to give the Illini a commanding 13-9 advantage. After the teams traded side-outs, the final point had fans in the arena and at home watching on TV at the edge if not out of their seats. Both teams took turns making huge digs until finally USC flinched and hit it long.

"I thought the last point defined the whole match in itself, just how tough of a match it was, how big of a battle it was," Hambly said "I thought it was two very, very good teams playing high level volleyball, and we were fortunate in the fifth to make some plays at the end and get over the top."

That rotation was also key in the third set. With the match tied at 1-1 and Ward again toeing the line, the senior delivered, turning a 22-19 deficit into a 25-22 victory. Ward served the final five points of the set and delivered the final blow with a swing out of the back row. Ward had six kills in 11 attacks in the set, but it was Johnson (12 kills, .455, 7 blocks) who was key, scoring on the slide and forcing the USC block to spread out.

The defense played as much a part of the victory as did the offense. The Illini block's goal is to filter the swings to libero Jennifer Beltran and let her make the play. That's exactly what the sophomore did time and again with 32 digs, the most in a post-season match in school history. Behind Johnson's seven blocks, Illinois out-blocked USC, 12-9. McMahon and redshirt freshman Anna Dorn added six block assists apiece.

Illinois has two wins over a No. 1 ranked team in school history and both have come against USC, but this one came obviously on a much bigger stage. USC was making its second straight national semifinal appearance and it showed early with All-American Kendall Bateman (65 assists) able to feed the middle and Lauren Williams. The senior delivered with six kills in eight attacks in that set and the Women of Troy jumped to leads of 8-5 and 11-8.

"I thought we were a little tentative," Hambly said of the start of the match. "We were at the semifinal for the first time and we were worried about that. I thought about after 15 we felt Illinois volleyball again."

The first set was an omen of just how much of a battle it would be. Behind the serving of senior Rachel Feldman, Illinois tied the match at 14. The set was tied nine more times from there until Alexis Olgard and Bateman teamed to block Ward on the set point to give that frame to USC, 27-25.

The Illini used momentum of the comeback into the second set. Illinois was never headed, jumping to a 3-0 lead then extending it 12-6 and 21-16. Bartsch and Ward each had eight kills in the set as the Illini led in that department 21-12 for the set.

Jupiter was just dominant in the fourth set for USC with 13 kills in 22 swings. While struggling out of the back row in the second third sets, she was good in every rotation in that fourth set.

Luhrsen, who had 66 assists and 11 digs on the night set the tone in the fifth set, serving the first two points, the second when McMahon found the line. And at 9-9, the Illini took control of the outcome.

The focus turns now to another Pac-12 juggernaut, UCLA, who made quick work of Florida State in the first semifinal.

On facing the Bruins, Hambly said, "UCLA will be fast everywhere and they'll challenge us. It's going to be tough. We'll have to play a whole different style against them, which is going to be interesting to see how fast we can make a turnaround and how long it takes us to adjust to that in the match."

First serve for the national championship will be at 7:30 pm on Saturday (ESPN2).