CHAMPAIGN — It could have been a turning-point victory. The kind the Illinois volleyball team has been so desperately searching for during its current tailspin.
No. 22 Purdue had other ideas.
The Boilermakers continued a two-year streak of invincibility in five-set matches Wednesday night, rallying to hand the Illini a tough-to-swallow 26-24, 20-25, 21-25, 25-20, 15-9 loss at Huff Hall.
“It’s really hard to take because we’re asking them to continue to fight and just keep pushing and (telling them) we’re going to have a breakthrough and get one of these matches,” UI coach Kevin Hambly said. “And they did that and we didn’t get the breakthrough.
“We had our opportunities.”
Unable to finish off Purdue after winning two of the first three sets, Illinois lost its fourth in a row and for the eighth time in its last 10 matches.
The Illini (10-13, 4-9 Big Ten) might have guessed they were playing with fire when Purdue sent the match to a fifth set. The Boilermakers (17-7, 8-5) improved to 6-0 in five-setters this season, with two of those wins coming against Illinois. This is no recent phenomenon for Purdue, which is undefeated in its last 13 five-set matches, a streak that dates to Oct. 29, 2010.
Hambly cited the toll that the recent losing streak seems to have taken on his team’s confidence.
“You’re struggling; the team needs some confidence, and this would have been a big one for us,” he said. “But the confidence is the reason why we didn’t get it. They didn’t believe at the end that they could beat this team.
“And we’ve got figure something out.”
Sophomore Liz McMahon led the Illini attack with a match-high 22 kills — one shy of her career high — in 44 swings. The right-side hitter has been Illinois’ top kill producer — or shared that distinction — in four of its last five matches.
“She was great, and she’s been great for a long time,” Hambly said. “She’s been carrying us in this stretch and we needed her to stay consistent, and she’s done that.
“She did a lot with some balls that were tough (to hit) and put a lot of pressure on Purdue.”
The Illini also received strong performances from middle blockers Erin Johnson and Anna Dorn, who combined for 16 kills in 34 swings and nine block assists.
However, Illinois received merely 18 kills from its starting outside hitters, Jocelynn Birks and Ali Stark, in 76 swings.
“We need a little bit more out of our outsides,” Hambly said. “We need (them) to play at a little higher level.”
The Illini outdug Purdue 73-71 behind a match-high 24 digs by libero Jennifer Beltran and 20 by Stark.
Illinois also limited 2011 Big Ten Player of the Year Ariel Turner to 13 kills and an .083 hitting percentage. But the Illini had no answer for Boilermaker right-side hitter Catherine Rebarchak, who racked up 18 kills in 37 swings.
“Rebarchak went off,” Hambly said.