Live from Huff: Illinois 3, Arizona State 2

Illinois beat Arizona State 17-15 in the fifth set to pull out  an Illini Classic opener 3-2 on Friday. The match, which started at 10 a.m. but still drew a considerable crowd, was the first of three against top-notch opponents for the Illini, ranked 14th nationally.

Next up: Washington at 7:30 p.m. today.

More coming on HQ.

Four Set: Arizona State 25, Illinois 18

Hero: Nora Tuioti-Mariner

The Sun Devils junior outside hitter didn't play in either of the first two sets, but she's up to nine kills now, including six in Set 4.

Goat: Illini attack.

It's been erratic in this match. In Set 4, Illinois reverted to its error-prone Set 1 ways and hit .108 with eight attack errors That's 25 for the match. Not that ASU has been much better. The Sun Devils have 24 attack errors.

What I'm thinking:

-- Score of this set is deceiving. Illini trailed 18-11, 21-13 and 23-14 before a too-late rally.

-- It's on to Set 5. Those were a major problem for Illinois last season, but Kevin Hambly's team is 1-0 this year in matches that go the distance. Not a big sample size, but Illini get a chance to set an early trend if they can pull out Set 5.

Third Set: Illinois 25, Arizona State 17

Hero:Illini offense and defense.

Take your pick. Illinois hit .375 in Set 3 and held ASU to a minus-.059 attack percentage.

Goat: McKenzie Willey.

The Sun Devils' freshman outside hitter had eight kills in the first two sets and was tough for the Illini D to handle. Set 3 was a different story. She had one kills in 14 swings with 3 errors.

What I'm thinking:

-- Illini were dominant early in this set, going on a 12-2 run to take a 14-4 lead. More importantly, Illinois answered every push-back by the Sun Devils to stay in control.

-- Never would have imagined the atmosphere for a match starting at 10 a.m. would be this good. The grade-school kids from Urbana are giving Huff Hall some major energy. They definitely like the music, hoppin' and boppin' around..I'm sure they're glad they're here instead of in class.

-- Terrific set for Illini outside hitter Jocelynn Birks, who had struggled so badly earlier in the match. She produced five kills in eigh swings as well as five digs. Birks is supremely important to the Illini attack, and when she's off, it puts a great deal of pressure on this team.

-- It's a cool day outside, but inside a Huff Hall without air conditioning, it's pretty toasty. The two big fans above the court are whirling, and one of them came into play when a shot by Illini Liz McMahon caromed off a Sun Devils player and hit the fan. Play was halted and the point was played over. ASU won that point.

Second Set: Illinois 25, Arizona State 23

Hero: Liz McMahon

The Illini junior outside hitter continues to be the team's most reliable weapon. McMahon delivered five kills in eight swings in Set 2 and had 11 for the match while hitting .296.

Goat: Mercedes Binns

The ASU sophomore middle blocker is having a tough time on the attack, hitting minus-.400 with three errors in five swings.

What I'm thinking:

-- Illini outside hitter Jocelynn Birks is coming out of her funk. The redshirt sophomore had five kills in 21 swings. Not great, but a huge improvement on her terrible Set 1.

-- As expected, Illini coach Kevin Hambly is holding middle blocker Anna Dorn out of this match, at least so far.Dorn continues to deal with the aftermath of knee surgery, and Hambly is reluctant to play her more than one match per day. With the Illini facing a big test tonight against No. 6 Washington, Hambly presumably is holding off on using Dorn til then. Freshman Katie Stadick is playing in Dorn's place and is doing pretty well given her inexperience at this level. Stadick had two kills in six swings to go with three block assists.

-- It had to happen sometime. ASU finally dropped a set. The Sun Devils were 22-0 for the season in sets before Illinois ended that perfect streak.

-- It's become very apparent that Illinois is reliant on its block being effective. The Illini have outhit every opponent this season, and are doing so again today. Illinois had 6.5 blocks to ASU's 5.

First Set: Arizona State 25, Illinois 22

Hero: Whitney Follette.

The ASU outside hitter had three kills and is hitting .333. She also contributed two block assists.

Goat: Hitters.

Neither team is exactly lighting it up. Illinois hit .021 and the Sun Devils have a .106 attack percentage.

What I'm thinking:

-- Illini have their hands full with a streaking ASU team. The Sun Devils now are 22-0 in sets this season. They don't yet know what losing is like.

-- Redshirt sophomore Jocelynn Birks might be having the worst offensive match of her Illini career. The outside hitter had one kill in 11 attempt and committed three hitting errors. It added up to a minus-.182 attack percentage for a player who entered the week ranked 15th in the nation in kills per set and 16th in points.

-- It got to the point with Birks that UI coach Kevin Hambly removed her from the match with his team trailing 20-18. Morganne Criswell replaced Birks but did not take a swing the rest of the set.

-- Illinois should be glad Liz McMahon heated up near the end of Set 1. The junior outside hitter scored four of her team's last five points. She had six kills in 19 swings for the set.

First serve

Thanks to hundreds of grade school students from Urbana, Huff Hall definitely is not empty. Members of the Spike Squad may be cutting classes, too, to attend. I seen quite a few fans, mostly older and probably retired, on hand. And the UI department of Recreation, Sport and Tourism planned to have students, faculty and staff attend.

Not a good estimator of attendance, but this is not a small group. Will be interesting to see the official figure.

****

Welcome to our live report from Huff Hall on this morning's Illini Classic volleyball match between No. 14 Illinois (3-2) and Arizona State (7-0).

This is the first of two matches today for both teams. At 5 p.m., the Sun Devils will face No. 2 Texas (4-1) before the Illini and No. 6 Washington (4-0) square off at approximately 7:30 p.m.

This also is the 30th annual Illini Classic, an event started in 1984. Wonder if anyone has witnessed each of the previous 29. The program has some loyal longtime fans, so it wouldn't necessarily come as a surprise.

It will be interesting to see how many fans turn out for this weekday morning match. The Illini volleyball program has worked to assure that it won't be near-empty by inviting the entire UI Department of Recreation, Sport and Tourism. The department has its offices and classrooms in Huff, and students, faculty and staff from RST have arranged to be in the seats to support the Illini. Students from three Urbana grade schools also are making a field trip to Huff for this match.

There are five participating teams this year, and with those teams playing anywhere from one to three times in the event, a tournament champion (or co-champion) will not be decided or declared. That's a break from tradition in an event rich with it. Just ask the more than 3,000 fans who witnessed the Illini's stunning five-set victory against No. 1 Southern California to decide the 2004 title, an outcome that ended the Trojans' NCAA record 52-match winning streak.

With matches against Washington and Texas in the next two days, Illinois continues its highly challenging schedule. The Illini have played four Top 25 opponents, going 3-1. If they can add to that this weekend, look for the voters to move Kevin Hambly's team up further in the poll.

Illinois and ASU have met merely once before, but that too was in an Illini Classic, back in 1987, when the Illini played their home matches at Kenney Gym. Illiinois won that matchup in four sets.

One major challenge for the Illini this morning will be to defend ASU outside hitter Macey Gardner. The sophomore entered the week leading the nation in kills per set (5.94) and ranking second in points (6.39).

Illinois can counter with a blocking corps that rates among the best in the country. The Illini entered the week seventh nationally in blocks per set (3.13), and redshirt freshman Maddie Mayers is No. 3 among individuals at 1.79.

Illini outside hitter Jocelynn Birks also is off to a high-impact start, ranking 15th nationally in kills (4.58) and 16th in points (5.05).

We'll update this report after every set, so be sure to check back in.

 

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