The Illini turned in the best finish in school history with the NCAA runner-up showing and ended the year with an overall record of 32-5.
Dec. 17, 2011
SAN ANTONIO, Texas - For this Illinois team, it was much too early to reflect on the success of the 2011-12 season. The list of accomplishments include the program's first national semifinal appearance in 23 years, its first NCAA final appearance and a tie for the most wins for the Illini since 1992. Still the campaign came up one win short of the team's ultimate goal to hoist the national championship trophy for Illinois, who finish the season at 32-5.
UCLA (30-6) used a big block to slow down the Illinois attack at key moments in prevailing in the national championship match 25-23, 23-25, 26-24, 25-16 in front of over 13,000 fans at the Alamodome. The Bruins out-blocked the Illini 15-11.5 and out-dug the Orange and Blue, 87-76.
"I couldn't be prouder of this group," Illinois head coach Kevin Hambly said. "I've never been around a group of people that were more committed to each other, more committed to the process, more committed to just being, not just great volleyball players, but great people."
Three Illinois players were named to the All-Tournament Team. Senior Colleen Ward, who earned First Team All-America honors earlier in the week, joined third team All-American Michelle Bartsch and junior setter Annie Luhrsen on the seven-player team. Ward hit .298 with 101 kills and 62 digs in her six NCAA Tournament games, including 17 kills and 13 digs in the national championship match. Bartsch, meanwhile, had seven kills in the first set and seven more in the third set en route to a match high 22 kills on the night. Luhrsen made some big plays both in setting with 47 assists and with her arm, where she rocketed six shots for kills. She was a big reason the Illini hit .279 for the tournament.
The match included an array of runs by both teams and three sets decided by just two points. In those, a play here and there is all that separated the two teams. The first set included 12 ties and five lead changes, looking as if it might be a repeat of the five-set marathon that saw the Illini defeat USC in Thursday night's semifinal. The Illini overcame a 17-14 deficit to take a 20-18 lead, only to see UCLA score seven of the final 10 points to eke out the set.
In set two, UCLA took the early momentum. Zoe Nightengale had four of her match-high 11 blocks in the set as the Bruins built a 20-13 lead. It looked as if the Illini might be in trouble, but Hambly has preached to his team all season about staying in the moment and playing the point in front of them. That's exactly what happened. Down 21-15, the Illini rattled off six straight points off the serve of Jackie Wolfe. Ward had a pair of kills and teamed with Luhrsen and Anna Dorn (8 blocks) on a triple block as the Illini took a 22-21 lead. Even after the Bruins tied the score, Luhrsen found freshman right side hitter Liz McMahon for a pair of kills down the stretch and the Illini capped an impressive comeback in taking the set 25-23.
Neither team sided out at above 60 percent in the first two sets, taking turns stringing points together. That ebb and flow continued in the third set. Senior Rachel Feldman helped serve the Illini to a 5-2 lead and the advantage reached 12-8 when Bartsch scored after a long rally, punching one through the block, but UCLA's Kelly Reeves served up five points in a 6-0 UCLA run as the Bruins went back in front. Down 21-19, the Illini went on a 5-1 run to go up 24-22, winning some long rallies thanks in part to some strong defense by Jennifer Beltran (26) and three straight kills from Bartsch.
The match ultimately turned in UCLA's favor at the point. The Bruins fought off two set points and scored the last four points to take the set 26-24. Minnesota transfer Tabi Love (14 kills) scored twice over the Illinois block and had six kills in eight attacks for the set. That overcame some big swings from both Bartsch and Ward, who had seven and six kills, respectively, in the set.
"We stole one from them and they stole one from us," Hambly said of the middle two sets.
From there, UCLA head coach Michael Sealy changed the pace by inserting middle blocker Sara Sage into the line-up for the fourth set. The Illini couldn't get the side out in some difficult rotations and Sage belted six kills in seven swings. The lead grew from 7-2 to 17-10 to 22-11, deficits too much to overcome this time for Illinois. Rachael Kidder had five her team high 20 kills in closing out the Bruins first national title since 1991.
"They made the plays they needed to make at key moments, and in the fourth set they sided out at 82 percent," Hambly said. "They played exceptional and we just couldn't stop them in that set."
Afterwards, the Illini players were emotional in expressing just how special a ride it was.
"It's tough," Ward said. "I'm just really grateful that I had the opportunity to come to Illinois. I couldn't have picked a better team, better coaches, or better support from our fans. I'm really thankful for what we had here and what we accomplished this year. I'm really proud of my team."
Those fans will have an opportunity to show their appreciation for the efforts of a memorable Illinois season. The Illini will return home at approximately 12:15 pm to Flightstar at Willard Airport. A fan welcome reception is planned at a hanger there.