Huth: Illini-Nittany Lions volleyball preview

Huth: Illini-Nittany Lions volleyball preview

Illinois (11-13, 5-9 Big Ten) at No. 2 Penn State (23-2, 13-1), 7 p.m. Thursday

Setting the scene
Welcome to the new normal in Big Ten scheduling. With Thursday’s matches at Penn State and at Iowa, the conference now will have played women’s volleyball on each day of the week except Monday this season. One primary impetus for expanding the scheduling window is the BTN and its desire to carry more live programming. Thursday night’s match at State College, Pa., which will be carried by BTN, is one example.

... Illinois’ streak of defeating perennial Big Ten power Penn State at least once per season since 2010 is on the line Thursday night after the Nittany Lions won the first meeting Oct. 6. The teams split two years ago, and the Illini swept the Nittany Lions in 2011 for the first time in series history.

... As Illinois well knows, winning on Penn State’s court is never easy. The Illini are 2-20 all time at Rec Hall, where the Nittany Lions are 11-0 this season and have won 19 straight dating to Oct. 19, 2011.

... Illinois halted a four-match losing streak Saturday versus Indiana and will look to win consecutive matches for the first time since it won two in a row Oct. 13 and 17.

... In a season with too many tough-to-swallow defeats, Illinois’ most disappointing surely occurred against Penn State last month at Huff Hall. Holding a 14-10 lead in the fifth set, the Illini had four serves for match point and failed to capitalize on any. Illinois itself later fought off two Nittany Lions’ opportunities for match point but ultimately lost the set 18-16 and the match.

... The kind of block the Illini exhibited in their last match undoubtedly will be needed against Penn State, which is hitting a Big Ten-best .285 in conference matches. Led by senior middle blocker Erin Johnson, Illinois racked up 15 blocks in the four-set win against Indiana. Johnson finished with nine blocks, including a career-high-tying two solos. With 418 career block assists, Johnson needs five to pass Michelle Bartsch (2008-11) for fourth place on the all-time UI list.

The scoop on Penn State
Coach: Russ Rose (34th year, 1,081-174)

Players to watch: So. S Micha Hancock, Jr. RS Ariel Scott, Jr. MB Katie Slay

About the Nittany Lions: Penn State is in the midst of playing four consecutive home matches and, starting Thursday night, will play four of its final six regular season matches at Rec Hall. Given how well the Nittany Lions are playing — and how successful they are at home — a final Big Ten record of 19-1 seemingly is within their reach. Since entering the Big Ten in 1991, Penn State has either finished 20-0 or 19-1 eight times.

... The Nittany Lions lead the Big Ten in kills, blocks and opponent hitting percentage, and they rank no lower than fourth in any of the seven primary team statistical categories.

... Penn State’s two defeats both have been in five sets — to Oregon State on Sept. 8 and to No. 4 Nebraska on Oct. 28.

... It will be interesting to see how much support Hancock receives when Big Ten coaches vote for the league’s Player of the Year award. On Monday, the sophomore was named Big Ten Co-Setter of the Week — her sixth weekly award from the conference this season. A day later, Hancock was selected national Player of the Week by the American Volleyball Coaches Association. Hancock ranks 10th in the nation in assists per set (11.66) for an attack hitting .297, No. 5 nationally. Her repertoire also includes a wicked jump serve that is producing 0.56 aces per set, No. 3 in the NCAA.

... Nittany Lions junior Deja McClendon, daughter of former Centennial prep basketball All-American Roger McClendon, had her uniform number retired earlier this year by her high school in Louisville, Ky. The outside hitter was the Kentucky Gatorade Player of the Year and Miss Kentucky Volleyball while playing for DuPont Manual Magnet.

 Jeff Huth

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