Live! vs. Marquette

Live! vs. Marquette

Final: Illinois 3, Marquette 1

No. 18 Illinois is headed back to the Sweet 16, and it won't need to leave town to get there.

By defeating No. 22 Marquette 19-25, 25-17, 25-13, 25-13, the Illini advanced to the semifinals of the Champaign Regional. They will play the winner of tonight's Missouri-Purdue match.

Outside hitters Jocelynn Birks belted a match-high 19 kills for Illinois (18-14), and teammate Liz McMahon added 17. The Illini hit .319 while limiting the Golden Eagles (26-60  to .163.

The loss halted a 15-match winning streak for Marquette.

A full story will be posted later.

****

Set 3: Illinois 25, Marquette 13

Hero: Jocelynn Birks

She's still on fire. The Illini outside hitter belted seven kills in 16 swings in this set and is up to 14 for the match despite a rocky Set 1.

Goat: Marquette hitters.

The Golden Eagles entered the tournament ranked 10th in the nation in hitting percentage. You'd never know it by the last two sets, with attack percentages of .171 and .097.

What I'm thinking:

-- Illini are one set away from reaching the Sweet 16. Who would have guessed they'd even be in the tournament back on Oct. 30 after getting swept by Nebraska and falling to 9-12.

-- We wrote before this match that Marquette hadn't beaten a ranked team this season. Looking like that will still be the case tonight against No. 18 Illinois.

-- Illini libero Jennifer Beltran and defensive specialist Danielle Davis are coming up big, combining for 29 digs. Beltran has a match-high 17.

-- Illini getting a big lift from freshman middle blocker Katie Stadick, who came off the bench in the second set and has produced four kills in five swings to go with three block assists. Shows the depth of this UI roster.

****

Set 2: Illinois 25, Marquette 17

Hero: Liz McMahon

The junior right-side hitter continues to be a rock for Illinois. She had six more kills in 10 swings in this set and now has 12 kills for the match while hitting .409.

Goat: Autumn Bailey

The Marquette freshman had a much tougher time in Set 2, committing five errors in 13 swings while managing three kills. In fairness, she's still doing the job of defense, with five digs in this set and 12 for the match.

What I'm thinking:

-- A total turnaround for the Illini after a shaky Set 1. Illinois was by far the best team on offense (.333) and limited a Marquette team that had hit .325 in the first set to .171 in this one.

-- The Illini need to try to get the ball more to middle blocker Anna Dorn. She only has four swings, but has capitalized for two kills.

-- Wisconsin is headed to State Farm Center next weekend. The Badgers swept Cal tonight to advance to the Champaign Regional. They'll join Florida State. The other two berths yet to be decided.

****

Set 1: Marquette 25, Illinois 19

Heroes: Golden Eagles freshmen

Big East Freshman of the Year Autumn Bailey and classmate Meghan Niemann loomed large in the Set 1 outcome. Each had five kills in 10 swings, with only one attack error between them.

Goat: Jocelyn Birks

The outside hitter was Illinois' best player in the first round, but she's struggling to open this match. Birks is hitting minus-.062 in 16 swings, with two kills and three errors.

What I'm thinking:

-- Surprisingly small crowd for a match that will determine whether Illinois makes it to the Champaign Regional next week. Lots of empty seats in the upper balconies. Won't be a 3,000 crowd tonight, and might be smaller than last night's crowd of 2,698.

-- Liz McMahon tried her best to get Illinois back into Set 1. The junior right-side hitter had 6 kills and hit .417 in 12 swings. Showed good awareness on a couple of tips against a Marquette defense that was playing a bit deep.

-- Marquette served tough in Set 1. That's one significant factor in the outcome.

****

Welcome to our live report from Huff Hall on tonight’s NCAA tournament second-round match between the No. 18 Illini and No. 22 Marquette.

Each team advanced Friday night with three-set sweeps, the Illini (17-14) defeating Ohio Valley Conference champion Morehead State and the Golden Eagles (26-5) eliminating American Athletic Conference champ Louisville.

Both teams are on a roll, although certainly to different degrees. Since the start of November, Illinois has won eight of 10 matches, the exceptions coming against current No. 2 Penn State and No. 10 Minnesota.

Meanwhile, the Golden Eagles stretched their winning streak to 15 in a row Friday night. Marquette also has won 21 of its last 22 matches, a streak that dates back to Sept. 22. The lone stumble was at Creighton on Oct. 13 in a three-set sweep. The Golden Eagles have since beaten Creighton twice, including a four-set victory for the Big East tournament title.

Illinois leads the all-time series 3-0. In the teams’ last meeting, the Illini swept Marquette in the second round of the 2011 NCAA tournament.

Will history repeat tonight? It probably depends on the legitimacy of Marquette’s record, streak and NCAA RPI. The latter is a surprising No. 8 in the nation. We say surprising because it isn’t built on victories against ranked opponents. The Golden Eagles are 0-4 against Top 25 foes. And Marquette doesn’t play in exactly the most highly regarded conference in the country. A revamped Big East has two teams in the RPI top 40, including No. 16 Creighton.

Compare that to the Big Ten. Illinois, which is No. 20 in the RPI, is joined by seven other conference members in the RPI’s top 40. There’s a reason the Illini were nationally seeded (No. 13) in the tournament and the Golden Eagles were not.

What no doubt does enhance Marquette’s RPI is its 11-1 record in true road matches. That, and the way it has mowed down opponents since late September. And it certainly doesn’t need to apologize for at least three of its defeats, which came against Penn State, No. 6 Florida and No. 7 Southern California (although fifth-seeded Florida’s stunning second-round loss Friday night against Florida State raises questions about how good the Gators really were).

Look for Illinois’ defense to be put to the test tonight. Entering the tournament, Marquette ranked 10th nationally in hitting percentage. Louisville had little luck slowing the Golden Eagles’ attack, which hit at a .305 clip Friday night. And, as Louisville learned, Marquette doesn’t lean on merely two or even three hitters. Of the four Golden Eagles who took at least 17 swings, each hit at least .306.

Again, however, it must be pointed out that Marquette’s national ranking in this statistical area was built against competition not nearly as stiff as Illinois has faced this season. The Illini have played 20 Top 25 teams and gone 9-11 in those matches.

So again, the critical question tonight is: How good are the Golden Eagles?
We shall find out.

And we shall update this report after each set, so be sure to check back.

-- Jeff Huth

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