CHAMPAIGN — It was the match of Morganne Criswell’s career. It very nearly was the match of the season for the Illinois volleyball team, too.
With junior outside hitter Criswell pounding a career-high 21 kills, the Illini had No. 4 Penn State with its back to the wall after three sets.
Then the Nittany Lions pushed back, pulling out a 19-25, 25-22, 24-26, 25-15, 15-12 Big Ten victory in front of 2,588 fans at Huff Hall Friday.
“It was a battle,” Illinois coach Kevin Hambly said. “It was two teams coming at each other and clubbing away and playing aggressive and fighting hard.”
The ending, however, was frustratingly familiar to the Illini, who fell to 7-10 overall and 3-4 in the conference.
“We had our chances,” said Hambly, whose team now is 3-7 in matches decided in four or five sets. “It came down to the same thing we talked about before; we’ve got to execute at the end. And we didn’t execute at the end. That was the difference.
“That’s something we’ve got to get past. Something we’ve got to figure out.”
Criswell had it figured out on this night, hitting a career-high .400 in 40 swings and eclipsing her previous career high for kills by six.
“She’s getting better and better all the time,” Hambly said. “She’s getting more comfortable. And when she’s aggressive, she can score. And she was (Friday).”
Hambly also cited the contributions of middle blocker Katie Stadick, who came off the bench to contribute five kills and three block assists, and Danielle Davis. The freshman defensive specialist had 11 digs, helping Illinois win the digs battle 60-53.
“There’s a lot of good stuff,” Hambly said.
Still, it wasn’t enough to knock off perennial power Penn State (15-2, 6-1), which won its sixth match in a row and 13th in its last 14 matches. Three of the Nittany Lions’ last four matches have gone five sets.
“They’re tough, and they’ve won a lot of these matches in five sets,” Hambly said. “We knew that they would continue to fight. It was a good match because we knew we’d continue to fight.”
But Hambly also knew that the Illini had let slip away a possibly season-turning victory. The type of win against a powerhouse opponent that would have meant so much to a team that’s been looking all season to get on a roll.
“It’s not about what we have; not about the talent that we have,” Hambly said. “It’s about ... we need one of these (types of wins). We need to win one and to build off and build off and build off so we have that confidence at the end of game (that) we can continue to make plays.
“We did in the third (set). We did in the first. We only did it for two sets, and that’s frustrating.”