CHAMPAIGN — How hot was it inside Huff Hall's gym Friday night?
With the venerable brick building a veritable heat sponge on a day that saw temperatures reach the high 90s, Tennessee coach Rob Patrick chose to wear a headband to keep the sweat out of his eyes.
Patrick's Vols did plenty to keep the heat on the nation's seventh-ranked team, too, forcing Illinois to dig deep to pull out a 31-29, 25-23, 23-25, 25-19 victory on the opening night of the State Farm Illini Classic.
"I thought they gave us everything we could handle," UI coach Kevin Hambly said after a nearly 2 1/2-hour match that attracted a "Stuff Huff" crowd of 2,619. "They're just a very good team. They've got kids that can play the game ... and they've got some athletes."
But so does unbeaten Illinois (4-0), as Michelle Bartsch proved throughout the match and particularly during a fourth set when both teams were wearing down.
The senior outside hitter racked up 21 kills and a career-high 23 digs. In the decisive fourth set, Bartsch produced five kills in 10 error-free swings for an Illini team that hit .049 in the set.
"She was the reason we won the fourth set," Hambly said. "She's the only one, I felt like, that really could carry an offensive load. We were really struggling throughout the beginning of that fourth set and I thought she did a nice job of carrying us. Made some big kills."
Bartsch became the third Illini since 2002 to record a 20-20 match in kills and digs, joining former teammates Laura DeBruler and Kylie McCulley.
"That's outstanding," Hambly said of Bartsch's entry into the 20-20 club. "She's kind of taken over Laura's spot and she played like her tonight."
Illinois also received a double-double from outside hitter Colleen Ward (15 kills, 16 digs) and a strong performance from junior middle blocker Erin Johnson (10 kills, six block assists).
Kelsey Robinson, a sophomore outside hitter from Wheaton St. Francis High, led the Vols (3-1) with a match-high 22 kills and 17 digs. Tennessee, which was ranked 24th in the AVCA preseason poll but dropped out this week, started a lineup that included five freshmen or sophomores as well as a sophomore libero.
"I'm surprised they're not in the Top 25," Hambly said. "They will be by the end of the year, I have no doubt in my mind. ... And by the end of the year, when these young kids start to figure it out, they're going to be really dangerous."
In the first set, the Illini had to overcome early deficits of 9-4 and 14-11 to get back into what turned out to be a battle royal. There were 18 ties and four lead changes before the set was settled. And that took each team fighting off set points, Illinois doing so four times and the Vols doing so twice. The Illini finally capitalized on their third set-point opportunity when Johnson and Ward combined to block a shot by Robinson, who already had eight kills.
Illinois won a defensive-oriented Set 2 — neither team hit over .146 — behind five kills by Bartsch.
Tennessee kept the match alive by rallying from a 21-18 deficit to win the third set by scoring seven of the last nine points. Robinson belted seven kills to lead a Vols attack that hit .302 in the set.
Illinois will try to win its sixth straight Illini Classic title today when it faces Houston at 10 a.m. and No. 21 Dayton in the 7:30 p.m. tournament finale.
In women's soccer:
USC 3, Illinois 1. Vanessa DiBernardo scored the Illini's lone goal, her team-leading sixth on the season, in a nonconference loss to the Trojans at Illinois Soccer Stadium.
The loss was the first of the season for Illinois (4-1-0).
Marissa Holden earned an assist on DiBernardo's goal.
The meeting was a rematch of the teams' 2010 NCAA tournament match, won by USC (2-3-0).
"The key was that there were too many moments in the game that got chaotic and frantic," UI coach Janet Rayfield said. "That really plays into them and what they try to do."
In men's cross-country:
Illini extend streak. Illinois had eight of the top nine overall finishers, including four running unattached, and rolled to its seventh consecutive Illini Challenge title at the UI Arboretum course in Urbana.
The Illini scored 21 points to easily outdistance runner-up Butler (62) in the seven-team meet.
Chris DeSilva of Illinois won the 6-kilometer race in 18 minutes, 50 seconds, while Jordan Hebert placed third (18:56) and Tim Achtien fourth (18:57).
In women's cross-country:
Illini third. Illinois, entering a team heavy on freshmen, placed third in the Illini Challenge at the UI Arboretum in Urbana.
Butler won the six-team meet with 16 points, followed by Purdue (51) and Illinois (75).
Freshman Colette Falsey was the top Illini finisher, placing 12th in the 4K race in 15:25.