Beat writer Jeff Huth breaks down the weekend's road volleyball matches against the Buckeyes and the Nittany Lions.
— No. 20 Illinois (14-12, 10-6 Big Ten) at Ohio State (16-12, 4-12), 6 p.m.
— No. 20 Illinois at No. 2 Penn State (24-2, 15-1), 6 p.m.
Setting the scene
The Illini hit the road in search of the victory that would assure the .500 record needed to be eligible for the NCAA tournament. With four regular season matches left, Illinois needs at least one more win to meet that requirement. Of course, Kevin Hambly’s streaking team aspires to a record better than 15-15 and what that could mean to its place in the tournament bracket. “There’s also a potential if we win more than (one more match) that we could potentially be seeded (in the top 16) because of our strength of schedule,” Hambly said. “It’s always tough to get wins on the road, but if our team could continue to move in the direction we feel like they are, we’ve got a great shot.”
Illinois enters the weekend on a five-victory run, by far its longest winning streak of an up-and-down season. Before the current surge, the Illini had not won more than two in a row — and that was once. “It sure feels like Illinois volleyball again,” Hambly said. “It’s been a struggle for us to get there.” ... The Illini coach talked again Monday during a news conference about the primary difference he’s seeing in his team recently. “Our team’s figured out how to fight,” he said. “They’re playing with a will to win that we haven’t seen from this particular group. That used to be a staple of our program, and I think we’re starting to find that again.”
... Hambly often has referred to the Nov. 6 match against Michigan as the turning point in Illinois’ season. After losing the first two sets at Huff Hall, the Illini charged back to win in five. The UI coach described the importance of that win in the strongest terms yet this week, relating how he told his players in the locker room during the break after Set 2 that the NCAA tournament might be beyond reach if they lost that night. “We talked about that, like ‘Look, if we don’t get this, it’s going to be really tough for us to pull this off and make the tournament,’ “ Hambly said. “We’ve been preaching similar stuff the whole year. I just think finally they realized how serious it was.”
... Morganne Criswell continues to play a leading role in the Illini’s recent revival. During last weekend’s 3-0 sweeps of Indiana and Purdue, the junior outside hitter racked up 25 kills and hit .388 in 49 swings. “We would not be on this run without Morganne,” Hambly said. “She was the best player (last) weekend in the gym. She was fantastic.”
About Ohio State
The last time Illinois saw the Buckeyes, Hambly’s squad sent them to their fourth straight loss and sixth defeat out of seven. Not much has changed for Ohio State, which has lost six of eight since. It’s been a mighty tumble for the Buckeyes, who once were 13-0 after winning their Big Ten opener.
... Despite their struggles, Ohio State has proven it can be a different team on its own court. The Buckeyes are 3-4 in Big Ten home matches. “They’ve been kind of up and down because they’re young,” Hambly said. “When they’re hot, they’re really tough to stop. And they’ve been good at home.”
... Keeping Kaitlyn Leary under control will be a priority for the UI defense. The senior outside hitter belted a match-high 20 kills in 51 swings during the teams’ first meeting. Leary leads the Big Ten in kills per set (4.84) and is No. 2 in conference matches (4.48). “They’re a tough team to play because they run great offenses,” Hambly said.
About Penn State
If the Michigan match was a pivotal moment for Illinois, the same might be said about the Nittany Lions’ first meeting with the Illini. Illinois pushed Penn State — winner of nine of the last 10 Big Ten titles — to five sets before losing the decisive set 15-12. Since then, the Nittany Lions have mowed through the competition, sweeping eight of nine opponents and losing one set. Did the Illini wake up the mighty Lions? “I hope we can put them back to sleep,” Hambly said. “They’re playing great. They’re playing like a team that’s poised to make a run at (a national title).”
... Hambly senses that Penn State went through a similar type of reboot as his Illini since the teams last met. “Like us, their attitude has changed; they look more competitive,” the UI coach said. “They were always a team that would bully you, and they weren’t that before. They were kind of playing around with you a little bit. And (now) they’re starting to bully teams, and we’re going to have to be ready for that.” ... Penn State will take a 15-match winning streak into its meeting with Northwestern on Friday. The Nittany Lions last lost Sept. 27 in their Big Ten opener against Michigan State.
... Through last Sunday, the Nittany Lions led the nation in blocked shots and ranked third in hitting percentage.