Volleyball team rebounds in style
CHAMPAIGN — Mired in a four-match losing streak, the No. 24 Illinois volleyball team was on an urgent search to reclaim its lost mojo.
As if on cue, enter Iowa.
No team seems to bring out the best in the Illini like the Hawkeyes. Entering Friday night’s Big Ten opener at State Farm Center, Illinois owned an all-time winning percentage of .809 against Iowa — its best against any Big Ten opponent.
And this match was no different, the Illini disposing of the Hawkeyes 25-19, 25-18, 25-21 to extend their winning streak in the series to 14.
“The team certainly was hurting for confidence,” coach Kevin Hambly said of his Illini. “To get a win in our first match of the Big Ten is a nice win.”
It was a victory witnessed by the second-largest home crowd in UI volleyball history. Moving for one night from their home court at Huff Hall to the State Farm Center — where the UI will host an NCAA regional in December — the Illini drew 7,061 fans.
The program record of 7,632 also took place at SFC — then known as the Assembly Hall — in 2009.
“I was surprised and excited about the crowd turnout,” Hambly said. “It’s a fun place to play. On the court, it didn’t feel like a home match, but the crowd made it feel like we were definitely home.”
Exactly seven days after hitting a season-low .073 in a three-set loss at North Carolina, Illinois (5-6) rebounded on offense. With middle blockers Anna Dorn and Maddie Mayers combining for 15 kills in 24 swings, and setter Alexis Viliunas catching the Iowa block off guard with six kills in seven attacks, Illinois hit at a .300 clip — its second highest of the season.
Meanwhile, the Illini defense held Iowa (9-4) to a .191 attack percentage.
“We’re big and physical, and I think that’s something we have over them,” 6-foot-6 Illinois junior Liz McMahon said.
The right-side hitter finished with a match-high 12 kills and was assisted in a balanced Illini offense by outside hitters Jocelynn Birks (nine kills) and Morganne Criswell (eight).
Birks, the UI’s top point producer in 2012 and this year, struggled mightily last weekend in a pair of defeats, hitting .043 in 94 swings.
But the redshirt sophomore looked more like herself on this night, tying McMahon for the match high in points (13) while also contributing a team-high 10 digs and a match-high three service aces.
“I was just thinking of being myself and playing free and not thinking about anything else,” said Birks, who hit .286 in 21 swings.
Criswell was among the Illini who contributed to the team’s eight aces, which tied a season high.
“I think serving aggressively really worked for us,” she said. “It took them out of their offense.”
Next up for Illinois is No. 12 Nebraska, a team that has dominated its series with the Illini much like the UI has done against Iowa.
Nebraska enters Saturday’s BTN-televised 4 p.m. match at Huff Hall with an 8-2 record and six straight wins against Illinois.
The Cornhuskers lead the all-time series 17-5-1.
“I look forward to seeing how we respond (Saturday),” Hambly said.
Osoba, Flaws key victory. Allie Osoba and Jannelle Flaws each scored, leading Illinois to a 2-1 victory against Iowa in their Big Ten Conference home opener.