CHAMPAIGN — The match was Illinois’ for the taking. Then rallying Ohio State snatched it away.
“I thought we had chances to win the match, and we just didn’t execute,” a somber Kevin Hambly said after his No. 21 Illini saw a two-set lead vanish Friday night in a five-set loss to No. 19 Ohio State at Huff Hall. “I don’t know the last time I’ve been this disappointed.”
Illinois will have little time to nurse its wounds from the stinging 16-25, 25-27, 25-21, 25-15, 15-12 defeat. Next up: No. 1 Penn State, with a 15-1 record and nine-match winning streak, visits Huff Hall at 7 p.m. today.
The Illini (8-7, 2-3) had dominated the series with the Buckeyes (12-5, 3-2) since 2008 and, after winning the first two sets, appeared poised to extend their winning streak against Ohio State to 10 straight.
“We had them out of system in the first two sets,” Hambly said.
But Illinois was unable to close the deal.
“There was a fight, but we weren’t participating in it,” Hambly said. “It was a fight to get us to fight. That is something I don’t understand.”
The Illini fell victim to a rash of hitting errors in Set 4. There were 10 in all — merely three fewer than Illinois had in the first three sets combined — as the Illini hit .065 in a lopsided loss that sent the match to a winner-take-all fifth set.
With a crowd of 2,453 passionately urging them on, the Illini rallied from an 11-8 deficit in Set 5 to tie it at 12.
“I thought the crowd would let us get over the top,” Hambly said.
But the Buckeyes had other ideas. Mari Hole broke the last tie of the match with a kill, followed by another by Buckeyes teammate Kaitlyn Leary. Facing match point, Illinois was guilty of four hits to end it.
Right-side hitter Liz McMahon led the Illini attack with a career-high 23 kills and hit .357 in 42 swings. But the sophomore also committed eight of her team’s 24 hitting errors, with five of McMahon’s coming in the fourth set.
“We had what we wanted (in matchups), but Liz just didn’t execute at the end,” Hambly said. “They couldn’t touch her (earlier) and then in that fourth set ... she struggled. She had a bunch of errors.
“Why that happened? ... I thought she was in a great groove and I thought (setter) Annie (Luhrsen) was using her really well.”
Leary, with 14 kills, paced an Ohio State attack that spread it around. Hole (13 kills) and Emily Danks (10 kills) also reached double figures for a Buckeyes team that outhit the Illini .289-262.
“I thought they had great balance in their offense,” Hambly said. “They have a lot of experience and they run such a great tempo, and then they have good balance because they have Danks on the other (right) side.”
Ohio State, which entered the match 11th in the Big Ten in blocks, won that particular battle with Illinois decisively — 11.5-6.
Libero Jennifer Beltran led the Illini to a slim 52-50 edge in digs with a match-high 25. The performance moved the junior past Tracey Marshall (1996-99) into second place on the UI career digs list. Beltran now has 1,436 digs, with only Ashley Edinger (2006-08) ahead of her. Edinger’s school record is 1,921.