Live from Huff: Penn State 3, Illinois 2

Live from Huff: Penn State 3, Illinois 2

Penn State wins Set 5 to take the match 19-25, 25-22, 24-26, 25-15, 15-12.

Full report will be posted later.

Set 4: Penn State 25, Illinois 15

Hero: Nia Grant

She didn't even start, but the Penn State outside hitter is having big impact since sitting out Set 1. Went 5-for-5 in kill attempts in Set 4.

Goat: Illini defense.

The Illinois attack wasn't great either, but the defense let Penn State loose for a .394 attack percentage.

What I'm thinking:

-- Good thing for Illinois after a Set 4 clunker that volleyball doesn't decide winners on cumulative points. We'll wipe the slate clean now for winner-take-all fifth set.

-- Penn State clearly has the momentum. We'll see if it continues.

-- This is the fourth five-set match in the last seven meetings of these teams.

Set 3: Illinois 26, Penn State 24

Hero:  Morganne Criswell

The Illini junior outside hitter was key again, delivering 6 kills in 12 swings.

Goat: Ariel Scott

The Penn State right-side hitter had plenty of swings (10) but could produce only one kill and had an error.

What I'm thinking:
-- Impressive comebacks by the Illini, both from a disappointing Set 2 and also from an early deficit in Set 3. At one point, Illinois turned a four-point deficit into a four-point lead for an eight-point swing.

-- Jocelynn Birks heating up for Illinois. The team's top attacker had five kills in Set 3, just one fewer than she had in the first two sets combined.

-- Penn State is its own worst enemy at the service line. Had four more service errors in Set 3; now up to 11 for the match.

-- Illini still winning the dig battle, 45-40. It's a big reason why they lead the match.

Set 2: Penn State 25, Illinois 22

Hero: Nia Grant.


The Penn State junior outside hitter was big in the Nittany Lions' Set 2 comeback, belting three kills in six swings and producing four blocks, including one solo.

Goat:  Illini hitters

After limiting their hitting errors to four in the first set, Illinois was guilty of seven in the second. It was widespread, with five different players commiting attack errors.

What I'm thinking:

-- Illini blew a golden opportunity in Set 2, and we'll have to see if its costs them the match. Illinois built an eight-point lead at 15-8 and was still ahead at 19-13 when Penn State mounted a relentless comeback.
-- Illinois got a major lift in Set two from junior Morganne Criswell. The outside hitter racked up eight kills in 16 swings. But she also had two hitting errors.
-- Penn State right-side hitter Ariel Scott can be a load, and she is tonight, with seven kills in 16 swings. It's been a far quieter night from Deja McClendon, who has four kills and is hitting .200.
-- Looking to see how Illinois will react in Set 3 after blowing that big lead. Can Illini shake it off? And has Penn State been invigorated by pulling one out of the fire?

Set 1: Illinois 25, Penn State 19

Hero: Illini attack

Illinois hit .500 en route to a 17-10 lead and finished Set 1 at .333. This against a Penn State team that entered No. 1 in the Big Ten in opponent hitting percentage (.137).

Goat: Penn State passers

Nittany Lions setter Micha Hancock was chases down poor passes all over the court. Only a late surge allowed Penn State to raise its attack percentage for Set 1 to .300.

What I'm thinking:
-- Impressive performance by the Illini in Set 1.  If they keep playing like this, Penn State might be in trouble. Illinois is the sounder, better team by far so far.

-- Great energy in the building. Give Illini fans a reason and they will fill this place up with noise.

-- Penn State servers helping Illinois' course. Have committed four service aces, including two by Hancock, who is regarded as one of the best servers in the country and ranks No. 1 in nation in aces per set (0.79).

-- Illini middle blocker Maddie Mayers making an impact on offense. Has three kills in five swings.

****

Welcome to our live report from Huff Hall for tonight's Big Ten volleyball match between the Illini and No. 4 Penn State.

Having won two of its last three matches, Illinois (7-9, 3-3 Big Ten) hopes to keep that momentum going. To do so, it will need to notch what would be its biggest victory of the season. The Nittany Lions (14-2, 5-1 Big Ten) have won five straight and 12 of their last 13 matches. Thanks to Minnesota's victory against No. 5 Michigan State on Thursday, Penn State is even with the Spartans (and Nebraska) in the Big Ten loss column. A victory tonight would lift Russ Rose's team into a tie for the lead.

The Nittany Lions have dominated the all-time series with Illinois, 39-9, but the teams have split their last six meetings. Two of the Illini's three wins against Penn State in that span have come at Huff Hall.

The Big Ten Network cameras are on hand for tonight's match. It's the third of at least five times that Illinois will appear on BTN this season. So far, Kevin Hambly's team is 1-1 in appearances on the network.

This will be the 12th time this season that the Illini take on a ranked opponent. Illinois enters 4-7 against Top 25 foes.

Illini fans know Penn State's reputation, and a visit to Champaign by the five-time NCAA champions typically draws a big crowd. Four of the top 15 all-time Illini home volleyball crowds were for matches against the Nittany Lions. Excluding matches at State Farm Center, four of the top 13 crowds at Huff Hall were for a Penn State match.

The Nittany Lions enter with two of the Big Ten's reigning weekly award winners. Senior middle blocker Katie Slay was named Big Ten Player of the week, and  junior Micha Hancock was selected Setter of the Week for the second straight time.

Besides being among the nation's best setters, Hancock also is a force behind the serving line. Best I've seen since I started covering Illini volleyball in 1996. She's averaging 0.72 aces per set this season, No. 2 in the nation.

I wonder if the UI will honor Illini libero Jennifer Beltran before or after tonight's match. The senior became the Illini's career digs leader in the team's last match, at Indiana on Saturday. A great feat that should be recognized.

Speaking of history-making achievements, Rose could leave Huff Hall tonight tied for second place in career victories among NCAA Division I volleyball coaches. With a 1,105-176 all-time record, he is one win shy of catching former UCLA head coach Andy Banachowski for second place behind current Hawaii coach Dave Shoji.

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

-- Jeff Huth

 

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