CHAMPAIGN — Kevin Hambly likened it to playing pepper.
That rapid-fire game might be a useful exercise in baseball — developing hand-eye coordination and quickness by attempting to keep the ball alive — but it's the last thing the Illinois coach wants to see from his hitters on a volleyball court.
The goal in this sport, after all, is terminating shots.
"I felt like we were trying to play pepper in the first set," Hambly said Friday night in the wake of the No. 20 Illini's 25-17, 25-17, 25-23 loss to No. 12 Minnesota at Huff Hall. "We came out ... very passive. We were just hitting these roll shots and not attacking Minnesota at all.
"We expect to come out and fight and be an attack team. We didn't really start attacking until that third set."
By then it was too late as the Gophers fended off a suddenly scrappy and determined Illini team to complete a sweep of the nationally televised Big Ten opener.
"You see in the third set how it should have been for us," said Hambly, whose team hit a scorching .462 in the final set after recording a meek .077 over the first two. "We gave ourselves a chance because we were aggressive and going for it.
"That's how you need to play that team, and that's how we need to play in the Big Ten. I hope we learned that."
Illinois (6-5) needed to be on its game offensively because the Gophers (10-2) typically are. Minnesota entered the week leading the nation in hitting percentage, and its performance on this night showed why. Led by right-side hitter Katherine Harms (17 kills in 30 swings) and middle blocker Tori Dixon (11 kills in 16 swings), the Gophers hit a blistering .375.
"They're the quintessential Big Ten team," Illini middle blocker Anna Dorn said. "They're big and physical. They're able to do a lot of things we haven't necessarily seen because they're so big and can hit over us and around us."
Harms was particularly vexing for the UI defense. The Gophers senior, who is having a breakout season, entered No. 2 in the Big Ten in kills per set. In the opening set, Harms cashed in on 7 of 8 kill attempts. Through two sets, she was hitting .611 in 18 swings.
"She kind of abused our block tonight," Dorn said.
Illini redshirt freshman Jocelynn Birks countered with 14 kills and Dorn had seven kills in 11 swings, but Illinois ended up with 33 kills, tying its season low.