CHAMPAIGN — The journey back to .500 was nearly two months in the making, was spent mostly in hostile gyms, and repeatedly put the resolve of this Illinois volleyball team to the test.
Urged on by 3,031 full-throated fans at Huff Hall on Saturday night, the persevering Illini finally evened their seasonlong ledger with a four-set victory against No. 13 Michigan State.
“It’s been some time coming, and we’ve had the opportunities (before) to do it,” coach Kevin Hambly said after his Illini avenged an earlier 3-0 loss to the Spartans with a 25-19, 21-25, 25-17. 25-19 Big Ten victory.
Just don’t suggest to Hambly or his players that Saturday night was a final destination. Yes, they now are 12-12 while playing what the NCAA has judged to be the toughest schedule in the nation. And yes, the NCAA does require a .500 record to be eligible for its tournament.
But with six matches remaining in this regular season, they know there still is work to do. Nothing is assured yet.
“It feels good, but we could easily lose that eligibility for the tournament so it’s something more we have to continue,” Illini right-side hitter Liz McMahon said after her team won its third straight match. “We know what it feels like to be in that groove and we (need to keep it) going the rest of the season.”
Before this week, Illinois played eight of its previous 10 matches on the road. The Illini didn’t lose ground during that stretch, but they didn’t gain ground, either, going 1-1 for five straight weeks.
“I think part of it, too, is we’ve had a tough schedule,” said Hambly, whose team last was .500 in mid-September at 4-4. “It’s tough to get those (2-0 weeks) when you’re playing great teams on the road. Being at home, you’ve got to take care of business at home.”
The Illini did just that this week, beating No. 17 Michigan and the Spartans to improve to 8-6 in the Big Ten.
Four of their remaining six matches are at Huff Hall.
Michigan State (19-7, 8-6 Big Ten) had manhandled Illinois in the teams’ first meeting, hitting .439 while rolling to a sweep. The Spartans encountered a much different Illini team this time.
With four different Illini reaching double figures in digs — led by libero Jennifer Beltran’s 21 — Hambly’s squad outdug the Spartans 74-61. It was a major reason Michigan State’s attack percentage this time was .198.
Illinois, meanwhile, hit .271 behind Jocelynn Birks’ match-high 21 kills and Liz McMahon’s 15.
“With the exception of the first part of the second set, we battled the whole time,” McMahon said. “I think we’re just figuring out how to compete really hard and execute at the same time. Figuring out that each point is precious.
“That’s something we took strides in this week.”
It’s what Hambly has been looking for all season, and even stretching back to last year, when Illinois struggled through a 14-16 campaign.
“I’m hoping this is a sign of things to come from the group and that we’ll continue to compete the way we competed tonight because when we do that, we’re tough,” he said. “We pass well and play great defense. ... It looked like Illinois volleyball to me. And we’ve been fighting to play that the last two years, to be honest.
“It was nice to see (it) this week.”