Volleyball: Illini give Texas a tussle

Volleyball: Illini give Texas a tussle

CHAMPAIGN — It probably should come as no surprise that No. 14 Illinois and No. 2 Texas couldn’t settle their argument in fewer than five sets Saturday night at Huff Hall.

For the fourth time in their last five matchups, the Illini and Longhorns went the distance to determine a winner.

On this night, it was Texas that delivered the more effective blows in Set 5, sending Illinois to a 25-23, 23-25, 25-13, 24-26, 15-11 defeat in the finale of the Illini Classic.

Illini coach Kevin Hambly might have been disappointed in the outcome, but he wasn’t in how his team competed against the defending national champions.

“I thought we played hard and played great,” he said. “We competed our butts off. We fought back — especially after losing that third set — and I really liked the way we competed after that. We just needed to execute a little bit better at the end.”

By bouncing back in the fourth set, Illinois gave its fans in the crowd of 2,642 reason to hope that this match would turn out like last year’s 3-2 win at Texas. There was more precedent than that outcome, too. The Illini entered the night 3-1 in five-setters in the all-time series against the Longhorns. Illinois (4-4) also was 2-0 this season in matches that went to five.

But All-American Haley Eckerman and her Texas teammates would have the final say, even after the Illini overcame an early four-point deficit in Set 5 to tie the score at 10 on two consecutive Jocelynn Birks kills.

The Longhorns (5-2) then went on a 5-1 run to end it.

“We gave ourselves some chances,” Hambly said. “We needed to play great at the end, and we didn’t play our best at the very, very end.”

Eckerman was a load, the junior outside hitter finishing with a match-high 23 kills — three in the fifth set — while hitting .340 in 50 swings. So was Bailey Webster, who added 17 kills for Texas and hit .341.

Everywhere Hambly looked on the Longhorns’ side of the court, he saw physically gifted players.

“I wouldn’t say they necessarily outplayed us,” he said. “They just out-athleted us and out-physicaled us on a couple of plays. No one’s that athletic. Penn State’s athletic, but no one’s like that.”

Even though Texas won most of the statistical battles — 72-56 in kills; .262-.169 in hitting percentage; 15-11 in blocks; 75-74 in digs — Illinois managed to take the Longhorns to the limit.

“I thought we didn’t give up,” Illini redshirt freshman middle blocker Maddie Mayers said. “Yesterday, in one of the sets (against Washington) we thought we kind of quit, and that’s completely unacceptable for this team to do. And I thought in this match we fought until the end.”

Birks led the Illini with 21 kills and added 12 digs for a double-double. Mayers nearly doubled, too, belting 15 kills and finishing with eight block assists. In her previous match, the first-year starter had two kills and two block assists.

“She played great,” Hambly said. “We’re kind of riding the Mayers roller coaster. She just needs to get older, more consistent. I think she could do this often.”

Recruit escapes flood damage. Illini volleyball recruit Jordyn Poulter said Saturday that her family’s home in Aurora, Colo., was not damaged by the torrential rain and flooding that struck the state this week.

According to one Denver television report, as of Saturday morning, the eastern suburb of Aurora had received between 12.94 inches and 13.56 inches of rain.

“Yes, we had a ton of rain the last few days,” Poulter wrote in an e-mail to The News-Gazette. “My home and community has not been severely affected like other parts of Aurora. Some have a bit of flooding in their basements, but for the most part it isn’t too bad.”

The Class of 2015 commitment attends Eaglecrest High School in nearby Centennial, Colo. Although Poulter’s school was undamaged, “one of our neighboring schools flooded, so we didn’t have school on Friday,” the junior setter said.