Upsets net tourney title for Hardin's determined bunch
CHAMPAIGN – Pac-10 women's volleyball bills itself as "The Conference of Champions." That's no idle boast, considering the league has produced five of the last seven NCAA champions.
But when one of the Pac-10's most accomplished members – No. 11 Oregon – came to Huff Hall on Saturday, another type of championship was snatched from its grasp.
A slow-starting but tenacious Illinois team stunned the mighty Ducks in five sets to clinch its third straight State Farm Illini Classic – and 18th overall – on the 25th anniversary of the event.
The final point in the Illini's 14-25, 16-25, 26-24, 25-21, 15-13 victory set off one final roar from a crowd of 1,051 fans that grew ever louder as the comeback progressed. For UI coach Don Hardin, it was a pinch-me moment, considering how unlikely this outcome was after Oregon had so thoroughly dominated his team in the first two sets.
"We didn't expect that," he said. "I think anybody that watched the way we got thumped in the first two games wouldn't expect that kind of comeback. And neither did I, quite frankly."
Which made unranked Illinois' second victory of the day against a Top 25 opponent – the hosts also knocked off No. 23 New Mexico State in four sets – all the sweeter for the 13th-year Illini coach.
"It's a pretty impressive win and a real gut check because (Oregon) beat us in every statistical category (for the match), including points scored," he said.
How thoroughly were the Illini (3-0) outplayed in the first two sets? At that point, the Ducks (2-1) were hitting a sizzling .453 to Illinois' .072. The Illini had zero blocks to Oregon's 8 1/2. And the Ducks had outdug Illinois 27-19.
In sum, it was an Illini performance that little resembled their first two in the tournament, during which they swept North Carolina and yielded merely one set to the ranked Aggies.
"I think it was mostly disappintment in ourselves," Illinois setter Lizzie Bazzetta said. "We hadn't played like that since we stepped in the gym in the preseason. ... That wasn't what we expect out of ourselves or out of each other."
Starting with a tug-of-war Illini victory in Set 3, disappointment steadily gave way. Taking its place was a growing confidence as Illinois not only began rising to the Ducks' level, but relentlessly answering every challenge from the 2007 Sweet 16 qualifier.
"I think we have the confidence in each other that no matter what happens in the previous point, the previous game, the previous two games, that we can take it upon ourselves to turn it around," Bazzetta said. "The last three (sets), we got after it. We stayed in rallies. Defense is going to keep us in games a lot ... and that's what we did in the next three games."
An Illini attack led by sophomore Laura DeBruler's career-high-tying 31 kills, hit .265 in the same span.
"I think we proved we can come back and get back into our rhythm," DeBruler said.
Illinois 3, New Mexico State 1. The Illini bounced back after squandering a sizeable Set 1 lead to knock off New Mexico State in the first match of the day.
The victory was Illinois' first against a nationally-ranked opponent since Oct. 13, 2006, when Hardin's team defeated No. 16 Ohio State at Huff Hall. Since then, the Illni were 0-13 against Top 25 opponents before ending the streak against the Aggies.
Illinois built a 20-13 lead in Set 1 before New Mexico State used an 8-0 rally to take the lead.
"As soon as we got to 20, we started doing things we don't usually do," Bazzetta said. "I think we got a little bit ahead of ourselves in that game, for sure."
The Illini outblocked the Aggies 16-7 behind a career-high 12 block assists from Johannah Bangert. The sophomore middle blocker, whose previous high was seven block assists, came within one of tying the 17-year-old school record. Kellie Hebeisen set the UI record of 13 block assists in 1991 against Georgia.
"Jo was known for her blocking nationally when she came to us," Hardin said. "It doesn't surprise me at all. It's the way in which she makes her mark out there.
"We see it every day in practice ... but now it's showing itself more regularly on the court."
DeBruler led Illinois in kills with a match-high 20.