CHAMPAIGN — This was not the dress rehearsal the Illinois volleyball team had in mind for the postseason.
With the NCAA scheduled to announce its tournament bracket Sunday night, the No. 18 Illini closed the regular season Saturday night with an opportunity to make a strong final statement to the selection committee.
Instead, the Illini stumbled badly out of the gate against No. 11 Minnesota. Although Illinois was able to regroup, it still wasn’t enough to prevent a 25-10, 25-19, 27-25 sweep by the Gophers in a Big Ten match at Huff Hall.
“I’m disappointed in how we started,” UI coach Kevin Hambly said. “I’m OK with how we ended; we just had chances we didn’t take advantage of. It was a struggle.
“I thought we fought in the second set, and then we started to play a little better in the third, but it was too late. You can’t do that at home against a really good team like Minnesota.”
Leading up to the match, Hambly said he thought a victory against the Gophers would put Illinois in strong consideration for hosting first- and second-round NCAA matches.
“We’ll see what (this loss) means for us,” he said. “I think we’re secure in the tournament, but once we’re on the road we’ll have to battle, and we’ll see.”
The Illini (16-14, 12-8 Big Ten) hit for a negative percentage in each of the first two sets and finished with a season-low .051 attack percentage while committing 26 hitting errors.
A Minnesota block led by freshman Hannah Tapp had much to do with Illinois’
hitting problems. The Gophers racked up 14.5 blocks — compared with 3.0 by the Illini — and received 11 block assists from middle blocker Tapp.
Minnesota (27-6, 15-5 Big Ten) wasted no time taking control, bolting to an 8-0 lead. When Set 1 ended, Illinois had tied its season low for points scored in a 25-point set.
In the second set, the Gophers took the lead for good at 7-6 and led by as many as six several times.
Illinois mustered its best volleyball of the night in Set 3, which saw 18 ties and eight lead changes. Trailing 23-21, the Illini scored three straight points and appeared ready to extend the match to another set. But Minnesota twice fought off UI set points, the last at 25-24, before scoring the final three points to end it.
No Illini reached double figures in kills, with Jocelynn Birks finishing with a team-high nine in 44 swings. Gophers middle blocker Tori Dixon belted a match-high 11 kills and hit .400 in 25 attempts.
Illini libero Jennifer Beltran, who was honored on Senior Night, produced a match-high 17 digs to help her team to a 51-51 draw with Minnesota in that category.