O'Brien settling in at libero

O'Brien settling in at libero

CHAMPAIGN — Illinois wrapped up its first major Big Ten homestand on a high note, with a 25-21, 25-18, 25-22 sweep of Maryland securing the Illini a third straight win and second consecutive sweep after beating Ohio State on Friday.

The four consecutive matches at Huff Hall — the longest such run this season for Illinois — doubled as an adjustment period.

Senior libero Brandi Donnelly went down with a leg injury in the first of the four, and there’s no clear timetable on her return. Figuring out life without their defensive leader meant changes for the Illini (15-4, 6-2 Big Ten).

Freshman Morgan O’Brien slid over to libero. Sophomore Annika Gereau got a full three rotations in the back row, filling O’Brien’s old role.  And it’s worked.

“I think slowly but surely we’re becoming more of a steady team — in all aspects,” said junior setter Jordyn Poulter, who had 42 assists and 14 digs against Maryland (14-6, 3-5). “We still make some questionable plays at times, but with a young team that’s expected. … The passers have really focused hard in practice, every single rep, on trying to better the ball and better their communication because they know that Brandi is not out there to take up half the court.”

O’Brien, who also had 14 digs against the Terrapins, called her move to libero nerve-wracking at first. The instruction she’s received from Donnelly, however, has helped her adjust to the bigger role in the Illini defense.

“It’s a lot more time on the court and a lot more responsibility because you’re basically leading the defense,” O’Brien said. “I feel like a lot is in my hands, so I’m just trying to take tips from Brandi and use them to my advantage. … She’s been telling me to be loud and tell the defense what to do and where to go because I am the leader of the defense.”

Illinois coach Chris Tamas characterized his team’s passing in its sweeps of Ohio State and Maryland as some of the best the Illini have shown in their first eight Big Ten matches. Poulter was able to spread the ball around, with Beth Prince (14 kills) and Ali Bastianelli and Jacqueline Quade (12 kills each) leading a balance attack.

Playing without Donnelly has been an adjustment, but Tamas said it’s one his team has handled.

“We knew there were going to be some plays that weren’t going to go as smoothly,” he said. “We had a few plays (Friday) night, a few easy ones (Saturday) that we just kind of chalk up to, ‘Hey, we need to make sure you’re communicating.’

“I told them for the weekend some of those plays are going to happen. It’s more about how we respond to how that happens, and we did a nice job of response. We didn’t give up any big runs this weekend and were able to stay in control for the course of the match.”

Illinois will take those adjustments on the road for its next three Big Ten matches. The Illini will return to action at 7 p.m. Friday at Iowa.