No cupcakes: No. 11 Illinois sweeps UNC

No cupcakes: No. 11 Illinois sweeps UNC

CHAMPAIGN — Illinois volleyball coach Kevin Hambly sets his team’s schedule with a purpose. He isn’t interested in wasting any matches before Big Ten play starts.

Hambly wants his teams tested early and tested often. There’s no pushover on the Illini’s slate.

That included the three teams No. 11 Illinois played in the season-opening Illini Classic. Beating Long Beach State, which received votes in the AVCA preseason poll, was a strong opener for Illinois on Friday. Another sweep against Southern Illinois kept the ball rolling.

But beating No. 20 North Carolina on Saturday night — sweeping the Tar Heels 25-19, 25-17, 25-23, no less — was a statement.

“I would definitely say so,” Illinois redshirt junior Ali Stark said. “We still have an extremely long way to go to where we want to be ultimately, but I think it sets the tone for the type of team that we want to be.”

Saturday’s win was a 180-degree turn from Illinois’ 3-0 loss last year to the Tar Heels in Chapel Hill, N.C. Hambly said he doesn’t use past results — the idea of getting revenge — as a motivational tool, but he was all for it if his team did so, and Stark did say it was nice to beat North Carolina after getting swept last year.

“You don’t forget losses,” Hambly said. “You forget a lot of wins, but no one forgets losses.”

Hambly was pleased, though, that his team continued to find a way to win. The first and third sets were tighter, but the Illini finished strong again.

“We’ve had a couple of those sets, we just found a way to win,” Hambly said. “I like that. I hope that becomes contagious — in tight sets you are  determined, you find a way to win. It’s a big deal to do that. I’ve had teams, this team, this group of kids has found ways to lose those sets, and it was nice to see them find ways to win.”

Illinois’ 3-0 start is the first for the program since 2011. The one downside of getting those wins at home is the fact the Illini will spend most of September on the road. But that’s the upside of the home start — they have some wins to build from.

“I hope this kind of gives us some momentum going into the three away weekends coming up here,” redshirt senior Anna Dorn said. “It’s pretty tough to play on the road, especially in some of those preconference tournaments when there’s not a lot of energy in the gym, and I think there’s a lot to be said about having a lot of confidence going into those weekends.

“Next weekend, we’re going to be at Stanford and playing some Top 10 teams. The fact we kind of have some experience under our belt, especially at home, to have those victories is going to give us more of an edge.”

Illinois 3, Southern Illinois 0. The Illini started Saturday with a win, beating Southern Illinois 25-23, 25-13, 25-12.

Both teams got off to a slow start in the opening set, but SIU was the first to find its footing. The Salukis built a 19-14 lead thanks to Taylor Pippen, who had nine kills in the match. But Illinois showed its strong finishing ability again behind solid play at the net from Jocelynn Birks and Stark to rally for the win.

The Illini took charge in the second set with an early 6-2 lead and never faltered behind Birks and Morganne Criswell. The third set featured another slow start, but lengthy trips at the service line from Julia Conard and Birks helped Illinois finish off its three-set sweep.

Birks led the Illini with 12 kills and hit .455, while Stark (10 kills), Liz McMahon (eight) and Criswell (seven) all contributed on the outside. Criswell hit a team-best .636 while playing just the first two sets.

Allison Palmer paced Illinois with 20 assists, while fellow setter Alexis Viliunas chipped in 13. Freshman libero Brandi Donnelly led the Illini with nine digs and also had eight assists.

Richey's observations

Illinois pieced together three consecutive sweeps to win the Illini Classic title, but Saturday night’s victory against North Carolina was the best of the bunch. The stakes were higher in the ranked matchup, but the Illini combined their typical strong defense with a balanced offense and made fewer errors to take down the Tar Heels. Here’s what went right:

On offense
Five different Illini had at least four kills, with Stark and Birks leading the way with eight apiece. That’s the kind of balance Hambly said he would like to see in every match — although he wouldn’t mind if all of his hitters hit double figures on kills.

The connection between Stark and Palmer, who had 19 assists, was apparent, though.

“Palms did a really great job with the tempo, making it really quick, and I think that kind of caused a little confusion with them,” Stark said. “Our middles were doing a great job of holding them, so it opened up opportunities for me.”

On defense
North Carolina entered the Illini Classic with 2012 All-American right side Chaniel Nelson back in the Tar Heels’ rotation. Nelson missed all of last season with an injury but was North Carolina’s leader through its first two games of the tournament. The Illini shut her down. Nelson had just two kills in 17 total attacks.

“I thought we did a great job on her, and that kind of took the wind out of their sails a little bit,” Hambly said. “The same with Paige Neuenfeldt. She was one of the people that we had voted for all-tournament coming into it, and she had one kill. That was part of the game plan.”

After the match
The Illini Classic all-tournament team was named at the conclusion of Illinois’ sweep against North Carolina. Pippen (SIU), Nelson (UNC), Tyler Jackson (LBSU) and Leigh Andrew (UNC) all made it, but they were nearly outnumbered by Illini.

Illinois had three players on the all-tournament team — Birks, Criswell and tournament MVP McMahon.

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