CHAMPAIGN — With its first Big Ten trip of the volleyball season looming next weekend, the last thing No. 20 Illinois wanted was to hit the road 0-2 in the conference.
Sunday’s hard-earned five-set victory against a Wisconsin team that hadn’t lost since Aug. 25 took care of that concern.
“It’s a big win, for sure, for confidence going into the weekend,” coach Kevin Hambly said after his Illini pulled out a 25-23, 23-25, 25-22, 22-25, 15-9 win at Huff Hall. “Yes, it is a very big win.”
Having now split its first two Big Ten tests, Illinois next heads to Indiana on Friday and to No. 17 Purdue on Saturday. A .500 conference record sure beats the alternative the Illini faced after being swept by No. 12 Minnesota in their Big Ten opener two days before the Badgers hit town.
“We don’t talk about it, but a lot of coaches will talk about (how) you don’t want to streak two losses in a row. It’s something tough to get over,”
Illinois setter Annie Luhrsen said. “Hopefully, we’ll keep this momentum going.”
Speaking of momentum, Illinois (7-5) has that in spades in its series with the Badgers. Sunday’s triumph — in front of an enthusiastic matinee crowd of 3,209 — was the Illini’s ninth straight against Wisconsin (13-2, 1-1).
The previous eight, however, weren’t anywhere near as difficult to secure as this one. The Badgers, who had been swept five times by the Illini since 2008 and never won more than one set against Illinois during that stretch, gave Hambly’s team all it could handle in this see-saw battle.
In fact, the Badgers seemingly had momentum on their side after rallying to force a fifth set. Facing a 22-20 deficit in Set 4, Wisconsin reeled off five straight points to extend the match.
But Illinois never trailed in Set 5 after scoring the first two points, later forcing Badgers coach Pete Waite to burn both of his timeouts in the set after building leads of 6-3 and 9-5.
“We kind of started every (previous) set slow ... and then we were fighting back every single time,” Luhrsen said. “In the fifth set, we finally came out and just attacked them from every aspect of the game — from the service line, from attacking, from defense — and I think that helped our attackers, especially, kind of go at them.”
The Illini hit .417 in the decisive set, belting 10 kills in 24 errorless swings to end Wisconsin’s 11-match winning streak.
Outside hitter Jocelynn Birks led a balanced Illini attack with a match-high 20 kills. But it was Illinois’ “bigs” that gave the Badger block the most fits. Liz McMahon, a 6-foot-6 sophomore right-side hitter, belted 19 kills and hit .333 in a career-high 42 swings. Anna Dorn, a 6-3 middle blocker, had 13 kills and hit .478. Erin Johnson, another 6-3 middle, hit .700 in 10 errorless swings.
Luhrsen rarely lacked for effective options while directing an Illini attack that hit .270.
“A lot of that was the passing was a lot calmer (than against Minnesota),” the fifth-year setter said. “And getting (the pass) inside around five feet (to the net) allows me to go to Lizzie and the middles. ... And the outsides are pretty steady so it’s nice to have everyone doing their job.”
But Wisconsin’s attack was almost as efficient, the Badgers hitting .262.
That number, so similar to what other opponents have put up against Illinois, again made Hambly cringe. A year ago, an Illini team that won 32 matches en route to finishing second in the NCAA tournament limited opponents to a .182 hitting percentage. This year, opponents are hitting .238 against the Illini, who rank last in the Big Ten in that category.
“And we’ve been like top three the last several years, and it’s been something we’ve hung our hat on as being a very good defensive team,” Hambly said. “It’s frustrating for us because we have our (defensive) system and we’re not executing it. ... It’s been too easy for teams to score.”
So Hambly and his team will do the only thing they can — head back to the practice court this week and continue to work at shoring up their block. There lies the key, says the UI coach, to bringing down those hefty hitting percentages that opponents are putting up on his team.
“(On defense), it’s all about the first contacts,” Hambly said. “We’ve been working our butts off in practice. It’s just getting used to doing it in the game. Game speed is very different.”