Illini grind out another five-set win

Illini grind out another five-set win

GREELEY, Colo. — Chris Tamas called his final timeout of Saturday’s match with Illinois trailing Northern Colorado 10-7 in the fifth set. The 1,102 fans at Bank of Colorado Arena included a fair amount in orange and blue, but chants of “overrated” filled the venue with the Bears’ fans sensing an upset in the making against the 12th-ranked Illini.

Tamas had a message for his team in that timeout.

“This is what it’s all about,” he said he told them. “This is the stuff I love, and you better love it, too.”

Illinois had already rebounded from a 5-0 deficit to star the fifth set at that point. Twenty-four hours after taking down No. 25 Colorado State in five sets, the Illini did it again.

Illinois outscored Northern Colorado 8-2 down the stretch to finish off a 23-25, 25-23, 25-19, 20-25, 15-12 victory and remain unbeaten in the opening weekend of the season.

A slow start after playing eight sets Friday set Illinois (3-0) back early against Northern Colorado. That was Tamas’ concern — especially after watching the Bears (1-1) on film from their own Friday win against UNC-Wilmington.

“They’re a scrappy team,” Tamas said. “They fly around pretty good. My concern was we’d not so much come out flat but just couldn’t execute and we’d get frustrated with a good floor defensive team. We did a little bit. it got to us a little bit.

“We stayed the course and made sure we kept chipping way, and I was impressed with the resiliency again. Not exactly how you want it to go, but I tell the team all the time there’s no such thing as style points, just points. We scored enough of them and came out with the victory.”

Megan Cooney got Illinois back on track after that final timeout in the fifth set. The Illini sophomore had three of her career high 19 kills in the fifth set, but it was a solo block that gave Illinois a 12-11 lead — an advantage it wouldn’t relinquish.

That solo block on the left side — any blocking as an outside hitter, really — is new for Cooney. She moved from opposite to outside with Beth Prince injured and has had to adjust on the fly in Illinois’ opening three matches of the season.

“I’m proud of what we did within a week,” Tamas said. “We didn’t practice that all preseason. Beth went down, and we have to come up with something out of necessity. Meg stepped up. It hasn’t been pretty every step of the way, but she’s responded to every challenge she’s had out there. She’s figured it out.”

Jacqueline Quade led Illinois’ attack for the third straight match with 22 kills to go with 14 digs. Ali Bastianelli chipped in 11 kills and four blocks, Jordyn Poulter had 58 assists and 11 digs and Morgan O’Brien came up a dig shy of matching her career high with 23 against Northern Colorado.

Illinois will travel to Seattle next weekend for the Big Ten/Pac-12 Challenge. The Illini will face No. 15 Colorado (2-1) at 7 p.m. on Aug. 31 before facing No. 17 Washington (2-0) at 10 p.m. on Sept. 1.