Road support big in Illini win

Road support big in Illini win

EVANSTON — Ongoing renovations at Welsh-Ryan Arena haven’t pushed the Northwestern volleyball team out of town like their men’s basketball counterparts, but down the road a couple miles. To Evanston Township High School were the primary colors at Beardsley Gym are the Wildkits’ orange and blue.

Add in a large, orange-clad contingent from the Libertyville volleyball program supporting Illinois freshman and Wildcats alum Morgan O’Brien and an undercover invasion by the Spike Squad — removing their purple gear and revealing themselves after the first Illinois point — and the Illini had a bit of home court advantage away from home.

Illinois (11-2, 2-0 Big Ten) coupled that enthusiastic support with what’s becoming a regular potent attack to sweep Northwestern 25-23, 25-19, 25-13 on Saturday night.

“That one in particular felt like we would score points and get bigger cheers,” Illinois coach Chris Tamas said. “I’m really appreciative of the support, and I know the girls are, too. It was cool to see. We always appreciate when we have big groups out cheering for us.”

The Illini victory against Northwestern (10-4, 0-2) played out similarly to Wednesday’s conference opener at Indiana. Illinois got off to a bit of a slow start — serve-receive was an issue in the first set — but made adjustments as the match progressed, picking up steady momentum for another sweep.

“I think sometimes it’s just flat-out execution,” Tamas said. “We didn’t vary too much from the beginning part of the game plan. It doesn’t matter if a team scores a couple points. That’s going to happen.

“How do we respond and what do we do? When we get a team’s best shot, how do we respond with ours?”

Illinois’ response Saturday night was what’s become a typical level of production from its attack this season. The Illini’s .405 hitting percentage marked the eighth time in 13 matches they’ve been more efficient than a typical benchmark for standout play — .300 and above.

Northwestern’s aggressive serving might have kept Illinois out of system for stretches throughout the match, but Jacqueline Quade and Beth Prince took advantage of getting the majority of the swings. The Illini outside hitters finished with 11 and 10 kills, respectively.

“It was making sure we were confident enough to handle the serve and put ourself in position to take good swings,” Tamas said. “We got good performances from both of our outsides. They did a good job of managing all their shot selection and really put us in position to score a lot of points tonight.”

Jordyn Poulter had a match-high 31 assists, and Brandi Donnelly (10 digs) and Megan Cooney (four blocks) paced the Illinois defense. The Illini, now winners of five straight, will return to action Friday at No. 2 Penn State.