CHAMPAIGN — The No. 1 women’s volleyball team in the nation wasn’t just on the ropes. It was inches from hitting the deck.
An Illinois team coming off a tough-to-swallow defeat 24 hours earlier had put mighty Penn State teetering on the brink of its second defeat of the season.
And with the score 14-10 in the decisive fifth set Saturday night — and with most of an on-their-feet crowd of 3,075 at Huff Hall pleading for just one more Illini point — No. 21 Illinois had four chances to deliver the knockout punch.
The Illini were unable to land even one.
The Nittany Lions stunningly reeled off five straight points to come back from almost certain defeat and then fended off all Illini counterpunches thereafter to prevail.
“We had chances,” UI coach Kevin Hambly said after Penn State pulled out a 23-25, 25-18, 25-21, 24-26, 18-16 triumph. “We had a lot of swings for it, and we didn’t make the plays.”
Illinois needed to make plenty of plays just to get to the point of coming oh so near to toppling the Nittany Lions. The Illini (8-8, 2-4 Big Ten) managed to keep the match alive by winning a fourth-set battle behind the clutch hitting of Liz McMahon (seven kills) and Jocelynn Birks (five).
Just like the night before against Ohio State, Illinois found itself in a winner-take-all fifth set. But this was different. On Friday night, the Illini had squandered a 2-0 lead in sets and couldn’t stem the Buckeyes’ comeback momentum.
This time, the Illini were riding momentum. Momentum that carried them within one point of a victory that would have grabbed the attention of the collegiate volleyball world.
“I wanted it for them more than anything,” Hambly said of his players, “because of how hard it was to turn around after last night. And to come out and fight against this team, it shows a lot of character.”
The same could be said for Penn State (16-1, 6-0).The Nittany Lions simply refused to lose, with Ariel Scott in particular coming up big late in that Set 5 comeback. The junior right-side hitter produced three of her team-high 19 kills after Illinois went ahead 14-10.
“They made plays, and if you back down for one second they’ll take it to you,” Hambly said. “There’s a reason they’re the No. 1 team in the country. They’ve got some great players, and I thought we did a good job of stopping them at times. And at times we just couldn’t touch them.”
In the wake of Friday’s loss to Ohio State, Hambly called out his team for not putting up more of a fight during the final three sets as the Buckeyes were battling to stay alive. Illinois responded by matching Penn State virtually blow by blow until the match’s final points.
“I think we saw the difference that it can make when we are attacking a team from when we are not attacking a team,” Illini middle blocker Erin Johnson said. “Our mentality and the way we went about playing was the difference between winning and losing. When we were attacking them, I thought we were winning, and when we were passive, we weren’t.”
The Illini needed — and received — major contributions from multiple players to nearly knock off Penn State. Outside hitter Jocelynn Birks played the best all-around match of her young career, the redshirt freshman finishing with match highs of 20 kills and 23 digs to go with five blocks, including one solo. Birks’ dig total shattered her previous career high of 16.
“I was just trying to play free,” she said. “My teammates were being supportive, and we really came together and that always helps.”
McMahon, a sophomore right-side hitter, belted 17 kills, while redshirt sophomore middle blocker Anna Dorn had 11 kills in 22 swings. Dorn and Johnson combined for 11 block assists, joining Birks in leading Illinois to a 13-10.5 edge in blocks. The Illini also outdug Penn State 67-66, with libero Jennifer Beltran totaling 17 digs.
“To play the number one team in the country, you have to have everyone competing at a high level and doing things for you, and I thought we got that out of everyone tonight,” Hambly said.
The Illini won’t have much time to dwell on Saturday’s loss, not with a trip to Michigan on Wednesday for a Big Ten Network-televised match.
“It’s disheartening, but we’ve got to keep our heads up and keep working,” Hambly said after this team lost its third in a row. “We only have one choice, We’ve got to pick ourselves up and keep battling.”