CHAMPAIGN — An early deficit Wednesday night against Minnesota wasn’t anything new for the Illinois volleyball team. The Illini had dropped at least the first set in 10 of 13 matches — and first two on four separate occasions — before facing the Gophers and weren’t immune from it happening at home.
So a 2-0 Minnesota lead at Huff Hall? No sweat. At least temporarily.
Illinois avoided a sweep with the makings of a comeback, but it ultimately wasn’t enough to upset the sixth-ranked team in the country. Minnesota (11-2, 5-0 Big Ten) just held on in the fourth set to finish off a 25-18, 29-27, 12-25, 25-23 victory against No. 17 Illinois (8-6, 3-2) in front of a Huff Hall crowd of 2,413 limited by the 8 p.m. start.
“It’s kind of one of those gut-wrenchers where you wish you would have started better,” Illinois coach Chris Tamas said. “But, again, we’re playing with a team that’s learning how to play with one another. I think it takes time to figure that out. Unfortunately, it’s not shown up in many first set wins, but I like our responses right now. When you’re playing quality opponents, it’s tough to get over that hump.”
Illinois’ almost comeback wasn’t out of place compared to the rest of the season either. The Illini bounced back from 0-2 deficits to beat both Tennessee and Marquette in five sets earlier this season.
“It’s two plays,” Illinois redshirt freshman setter Diana Brown said about dropping the first two sets to Minnesota. “It’s just the little things right now. Maybe it is a hole, but I think our effort is there. As this season goes on I see progress, and that’s all you can ask for is progress. Yeah, we want wins, but we just want to get better every single time.”
Illinois’ early deficit came with a sharp contrast in efficiency compared to Minnesota. A combination of unforced errors, a formidable Gophers’ block and not getting enough strong, in-system swings handcuffed the Illini in the first two sets. Minnesota, meanwhile, was getting big rips from the trio of Adanna Rollins, Alexis Hart and Stephanie Samedy.
“We knew that Minnesota was going to give us a lot of chances to play volleyball,” Tamas said. “They don’t make many errors. It’s a part of their game. … I just felt like we were trying to hit the perfect shot too often than trying to hit the one that was good enough to stay within the rally. I think that just manifested itself into a few too many errors in the course of the match.
“Obviously you want to take your chances when you can. We were in between hitting a good shot and taking a big swing. That usually ends up in kind of a mediocre play. We had a lot of opportunities to score. We have to come up with a few more swings in a few more moments.”
The tide started turning in Illinois’ direction before their blowout third set win. The Illini fought off seven Minnesota set points in the second set — with a slew of big plays by St. Thomas More grad and sophomore opposite Mica Allison — to push it to extra points before the Gophers finished off the set win. That momentum, though, propelled Illinois’ runaway third set victory behind an attack that got back on track behind senior outside hitter Jacqueline Quade and junior outside hitter Megan Cooney.
“I think we just kind of come in with the same mentality every single set,” Allison said. “Sure, we lost one, but we’re going to find a way. I don’t think we dwell. That’s what the coaches are big on.”
Cooney led Illinois with 19 kills, with Quade finishing with 18 and senior middle blocker Ashlyn Fleming chipping in 12. Brown had her third straight double-double with 51 assists and 14 digs.
“I think execution was better,” Brown said about Illinois’ stronger finish. “I thought we were better on our scout, too. We were a little apprehensive at times, so we went for it."
But it still wasn’t enough to counter a more efficient Minnesota team that also benefitted from a stingy defense. That leaves Illinois trying to bounce back at 7 p.m. Saturday with a rematch against Indiana at Huff Hall. The Illini swept the Hoosiers last Friday in Bloomington, Ind.
Allison compared Illinois’ current state to what the team was facing after losing in a close, four-set match to Nebraska in its Big Ten opener.
"We just put it in the past, learned from it and went on that run of a couple wins,” Allison said. “I think it will be the same thing — learn from it and move on.”