CHAMPAIGN — Just when you think things can’t possibly get more painful for the Illinois volleyball team, Friday night happens.
With their eligibility for the NCAA tournament hanging by a thread, the Illini bolted to a 2-0 lead on Michigan State, only to see the streaking Spartans storm back to win the final three sets at Huff Hall.
With that, any chance the 2011 NCAA runner-up had of returning to the postseason vanished.
“It’s kind of hard to get a handle on it just because we’ve been in the tournament every year since I’ve been here,” senior middle blocker Erin Johnson said after the Illini absorbed a 23-25, 23-25, 25-17, 25-21, 15-11 Big Ten defeat. “Obviously I’m disappointed. Everyone’s goal is to make the tournament and win a national championship, and that’s impossible for us now.”
Entering the night, Illinois needed to win its four remaining regular season matches to remain eligible for a tournament bid. To receive an at-large invitation, a team must have at least a .500 record.
The Illini dropped to 11-16. Now, the best record Illinois can finish with is 14-16.
This defeat had a too familiar sting to it. For the 12th time this season, Illinois found itself in a five-set match. For the eighth time in 2012, the Illini lost in the fifth set.
“I just think it falls on us not closing and kind of feeling the pressure of the situation,” said Johnson, who had eight kills in 13 swings and contributed four block assists. “After all these times still, obviously we haven’t figured out a way to win them, so that’s disappointing.”
Particularly for Johnson and the four other classmates on the UI roster. Other Illini players still have future opportunities to reach the tournament.
Not so for the seniors.
“I feel for them,” UI coach Kevin Hambly said. “I want the wins for all the players, but the seniors, it’s their last shot.
“That’s it and they know that. It’s going to be hard because you’re not used to that. You’re used to saying (to the crowd) on Senior Night, ‘Hey, come back because we’re hosting the first two rounds.’ That’s what we’ve become accustomed to for them.”
After two sets, the Illini (5-12 Big Ten) appeared poised to break out of a 1-6 slump and end Michigan State’s four-match winning streak. But Illinois was unable to close the deal, even with three shots to do so.
“We played pretty well at times; we just couldn’t sustain our level (of play) or make plays at the end of sets,” Hambly said. “I don’t fault their effort or their willingness to go for it. We just didn’t execute.
“That’s been the story for us. That’s the frustrating part of it. We haven’t been able to execute down the stretch, and that happens with young teams sometimes.”
For Michigan State (22-7, 10-7), this was a payback victory. In October, it was the Spartans who built a 2-0 lead, only to see Illinois refuse to lose any of the next three sets. In the rematch, Michigan State prevailed behind a potent attack that hit .338. Big Ten Player of the Year candidate
Lauren Wicinski led the visitors with 20 kills and was one of four Spartans with at least 16 swings to hit .381 or higher.
Illinois’ attack relied on Jocelynn Birks (22 kills) and Liz McMahon (18 kills), and the Illini matched Michigan State’s performance in the areas of blocks (11-11) and digs (50-50).
In the end, however, this match had an all-too-familiar outcome. Hambly can’t help but think all these close losses have had a wearing effect on his players.
“It doesn’t look that way when you look in the kids’ eyes, but I think there’s a little doubt in there, and you need confidence to win that (fifth set),” he said. “If you win a couple, then you get that confidence that you can win those sets.
“I think we’re just lacking that confidence. ... just that belief that they can win that set.”