Northwestern (13-6, 2-6) vs. No. 25 Illinois (9-9, 3-5 Big Ten), 7 p.m. today at Huff Hall
Setting the scene
Kevin Hambly made the biggest personnel decision of his four-year Illini head coaching tenure Saturday and saw it pay dividends. With his team mired in a four-match losing streak, Hambly elevated freshman Alexis Viliunas to starting setter in place of fifth-year senior Annie Luhrsen. With Viliunas producing a double-double (49 assists, 14 digs) in her first collegiate match, the visiting Illini rallied from a 2-0 deficit to defeat then-No. 25 Michigan State in five sets. A year ago, Luhrsen ranked 28th in the nation in assists per set for an Illini team that went 32-5 and finished second in the NCAA tournament. With Luhrsen back, Hambly entered this season intent on redshirting Viliunas to preserve a year of eligibility for the 2011 Illinois Gatorade Player of the Year. With Illinois continuing to struggle, however, Hambly made a switch he called “probably the hardest decision I’ve made.” The Big Ten took note of Viliunas’ impact, selecting the LaGrange Lyons graduate Monday as its Freshman of the Week in the sport. ... With No. 4 Nebraska heading into Huff Hall on Sunday, tonight’s match against Northwestern takes on added urgency for the Illini. With 12 regular season matches left, Illinois needs to go at least 7-5 to achieve the winning record that is necessary to be considered for an NCAA tournament at-large berth. This seemingly is a match the Illini can’t afford to lose if they’re to meet that criterion. ... Illinois leads the all-time series with the Wildcats 48-27 and has dominated recently, winning six of the last seven meetings. ... The Illini had lost three consecutive five-set matches before pulling out the win at Michigan State. Illinois has a 3-5 record in five-setters this season. The Illini last won a five-set match in which they dropped the first two sets on Sept. 10, 2011, against Tulsa. ... Illinois libero Jennifer Beltran had 21 digs against Michigan State to move into 21st place on the Big Ten career chart. The junior now has 1,491 digs. Jessica Granquist (2008-11) of Minnesota is 20th with 1,516. ... With her next block, senior middle blocker Erin Johnson will tie Laura Bush (1987-90) for ninth place on the UI career blocks list. Johnson enters tonight with 415 blocks. She also is tied for eighth place in career assist blocks — at 391 — with Denise Fracaro (1982-85).
The scoop on Northwestern
Coach: Keylor Chan (13th year, 187-204)
Players to watch: So. MB Katie Dutchman; Jr. OH Stephanie Holthus; Sr. S Madalyn Shalter
About the Wildcats: Northwestern opened the season with 11 consecutive wins, its best start in program history and its longest winning streak since 1983. All those victories, however, came during the preconference portion of the schedule against unranked opponents, and the Wildcats have experienced tough sledding in the Big Ten. But Northwestern can be dangerous. Just ask Michigan State, which lost in four sets to the Wildcats one night before Illinois needed five sets to defeat the Spartans. Northwestern also extended then-No. 12 Minnesota and then-No. 13 Purdue to four sets before losing. ... Can the Illini expect another five-set match tonight? Not if one Wildcats’ streak is to continue. Northwestern continues to be the only Big Ten team that has not played a five-setter this season. ... Shalter ranks 10th in the nation and leads the Big Ten in assists per set (11.67). She also is eighth in the conference in digs (3.45). Shalter has been selected as Big Ten Setter of the Week twice this season.. ... Holthus, the lone Wildcat on the 14-member Preseason All-Big Ten Team, is second in the conference and 19th nationally in kills per set (4.33).