CHAMPAIGN — The ingredients for a special day for the Illinois volleyball team were all in place Sunday at Huff Hall.
No. 4 Nebraska, making its first trip to Champaign as a Big Ten member, offered the No. 25 Illini an opportunity for the type of wow-factor win Kevin Hambly’s team hadn’t experienced since knocking off then-No. 6 Texas on the Longhorns’ court in mid-September.
A national audience would be looking in thanks to the presence of ESPN2’s cameras and crew.
And a total of 3,222 fans made their way through the doors of the UI’s venerable volleyball venue — the Illini’s third-largest home crowd this season and the 19th biggest in program history — intent on making Huff Hall the type of homecourt advantage that would drive Nebraska to distraction.
All that was needed was a recently improving Illini team that had won its last two matches to continue to raise the bar. To give the type of performance that had stunned Texas and nearly done the same to No. 1 Penn State, which barely escaped Huff earlier this month with a five-set win.
Instead, the Illinois team that showed up on this day was a worthy adversary for the streaking Cornhuskers in only one set and otherwise went down meekly in a 25-16, 25-23, 25-16 loss.
“From the beginning, we didn’t attack this team,” Illini coach Kevin Hambly said. “We didn’t attack from the service line. We didn’t attack at the net, and we weren’t aggressive on our second contacts.”
Illinois (10-10, 4-6 Big Ten) was error-prone, too, in hitting a season-low .147. Of the Illini’s 24 hitting errors, half were either belted out of bounds or into the net.
In contrast, Nebraska (17-2, 9-1) hit .310 and limited its hitting errors to 10 — only four of which were unforced.
“We just gave a team that doesn’t give up points way too many points,” said Hambly, whose team also committed five service errors. “They force you to beat them. They don’t beat themselves. I thought that was the difference. We just kept giving them points.”
En route to their ninth straight victory, the Cornhuskers attacked Illinois from every direction. No Nebraska player had more than 10 kills, but five Cornhuskers contributed at least five.
“They don’t really have a star; they have a bunch of stars,” Hambly said. “They all play their roles well. It’s a very, very good, well-balanced team — like some teams that we’ve had.”
The same was evident on defense at the net. Six different Cornhuskers had at least three block assists. With middle blocker Hayley Thramer racking up eight block assists, Nebraska outblocked Illinois 12-6.
“They’re big and physical,” Illini outside hitter Ali Stark (eight kills, 13 digs) said. “But just going into it (the plan was) swinging aggressive, trying to hit the top of the block, not swing down into it.
“They’re a good blocking team, but when we’re on and aggressive, we can beat them.”
Illinois showed that capability in Set 2, three times building leads as big as five points and later holding a 15-11 advantage. But the Illini were unable to finish the job as Nebraska went on an 8-2 run to jump ahead 19-17. The Cornhuskers later broke the seventh and final tie of the set on a kill by Gina Mancuso en route to a 2-0 lead at the break.
“Set 2, in general, we were starting to get in a rhythm, but we still weren’t anywhere near where we needed to be,” Stark said. “So coming into the third, we wanted to build on top of that. But we didn’t.”
Hambly viewed the second set as the critical point of the match.
“I thought if we played well, we had a shot (to win the match), and I think we did in that second set,” the UI coach said. “I think we needed to get that second set. That’s one we needed to get some confidence to feel we could play with this team.”
Instead, the Cornhuskers made quick work of Illinois in the third set, leaving the Illini to wonder why they had not put up more of a fight.
“It’s disappointing that we didn’t.” Stark said.