A hit and a miss for volleyball

CHAMPAIGN — As Liz McMahon was leaving a Huff Hall classroom that served as a postmatch interview site, Illinois volleyball coach Kevin Hambly urged his outside hitter to stay off her feet as much as possible in the hours before returning for the team’s second match of the day.

Given the exhausting effort McMahon put into the Illini’s marathon victory against Arizona State in a Friday morning match that stretched into the afternoon — particularly during the winner-take-all fifth-set battle — Hambly had good reason to want his prized junior rested and ready for the impending evening showdown against No. 6 Washington.

“When it’s lined up and she’s right, she’s as good as anyone at scoring points,” Hambly said, “and we need that from her.”

The No. 14 Illini certainly did against a torrid Arizona State team that not only entered the match with a 7-0 record but had not lost a set all season.

In fact, the Sun Devils extended that streak to 22-0 by winning Set 1 in this Illini Classic match before ultimately succumbing to the host team — and to McMahon — 22-25, 25-23, 25-17, 18-25, 17-15.

In the process, Hambly reached the 100-victory milestone in his fifth season at the UI helm.

After twice trailing by as many as three points earlier in the fifth set, Arizona State fought back to build a 14-12 lead and push Illinois to the precipice of defeat. But the Illini managed to stave off match point three different times, and each time it was McMahon who came to the rescue with a kill.

“That swing she took on the right side (with Illinois trailing 14-13) was as gutsy a swing as I’ve seen,” Hambly said. “And she went for it. She hit it hard.”

With the score tied at 15, McMahon came through again, belting a shot deep in ASU’s court to give Illinois  its first lead of the set since holding a 10-9 edge.

The 2-hour, 25-minute battle ended seconds later when Sun Devils outside hitter Nora Tuioti-Mariner committed a hitting error.

“We were down, but that didn’t really faze us at all,” McMahon said. “We saw a lot of determination, I think, in that fifth (set).”

McMahon finished with a season-high 23 kills while taking 65 swings — 12 more than the junior’s previous career high.

Entering the season, the 6-foot-6 McMahon had talked about wanting to be the player who rises to the occasion when the match is on the line. Of wanting to be the Illini who takes the swing for a critical point.

Against ASU, she seized that opportunity time and again in Set 5. And she delivered.

“I mean, just the last couple of swings I took were a little bold,” McMahon said, “I like that role. I’m comfortable with that role.”

Said Hambly: “She was bold. And smart with the shots that she hit.”

On a day when shots did not land inside the lines easily — each team hit under .160 and even McMahon was guilty of 11 attack errors — Illinois received a much-needed offensive jolt from an unexpected source.

With the Illini playing twice this day, Hambly decided to withhold starting middle blocker Anna Dorn from the first match. He had done the same thing on the opening day of the season — when Illinois also played two matches — to lessen the stress on Dorn’s surgically repaired knee. Deciding he would rather have the 6-3 redshirt junior on the court against Washington, Hambly called upon Katie Stadick to fill in as she had on opening day.

“I’m wanting to be ready to go in whenever needed,” she said.

The 6-3 freshman was ready on this day. Stadick, who before Friday had taken two swings in one previous college match, produced seven kills and hit .429 in 14 attacks. In the decisive fifth set, the Watertown, Wis., native was 2 for 2 on the attack.

“She was awesome,” McMahon said.

And not too shabby on defense, either. Although the Illini were outblocked for the first time this season, Stadick stood tallest on her team in this category with seven block assists.

“I’m not surprised by Stadick,” Hambly said. “We see that every day in practice. You can tell I’m not going to hesitate to put her out there if somebody’s struggling. If Anna or (starting middle) Maddie (Mayers) are struggling, she can make plays.”

Later Friday night, with Arizona State serving as an exciting example of what is possible, the Illinois volleyball team was hoping to emulate the Sun Devils by taking down a Top 10 opponent.

Instead, following ASU’s stunning three-set sweep of No. 2 Texas in the preceding match at the Illini Classic, Washington lived up to its No. 6 ranking against the host school.

The No. 14 Illini, meanwhile, couldn’t live down their problems behind the service line. The result: a four-set Huskies’ victory that ended Illinois’ perfect 7-0 record in the program’s annual Stuff Huff matches.

“I thought we served the worst we have all year,”  coach Kevin Hambly said after his Illini fell 25-21, 22-25, 25-19, 25-13 in front of a crowd of 3,538. “We’ve been pretty low-error from the service line.”

Not on this night. Illinois (4-3) committed 11 serving errors, matching its season high. Washington (5-0) was even more error-prone, hitting 12 serves out of bounds. The difference: The Huskies parlayed their aggressive serving into 10 aces. Illinois finished with two, and as the errors mounted up, Hambly saw his team become more timid behind the service line. Not a good idea against one of the nation’s top attacking teams. Washington, which entered the week No. 2 in the NCAA in hitting percentage, hit .500 in the runaway fourth set to finish the match at .270.

“(The errors) just led us to serving easier and easier and easier, and then they started going offensively,” Hambly said.

Illinois had a particularly difficult time slowing Krista Vansant. The 2012 second-team All-American racked up a match-high 19 kills and committed merely one error in 39 swings.

“Vansant was awesome tonight,” Hambly said. “We really didn’t have an answer for her.”

Illinois received a strong performance from Anna Dorn, who contributed seven kills and three block assists while hitting .455 in 11 swings.

“I thought she had a really good match,” Hambly said. “She’s always good in the big matches.”

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