Illini go 3-0 in tough tourney

By Anthony Zilis

Heading into the season-opening State Farm Illini Classic tournament, the University of Illinois volleyball team faced tough tests in North Carolina, No. 23 New Mexico State and No. 11 Oregon.

But head coach Don Hardin believed this tough scheduling served an important purpose.

“This is the toughest early season schedule I’ve ever put on a team, and the reason is I think the team’s ready for this, and they’re going to use that to get ready for what matters.”

The Illini responded by finishing 3-0 in the tournament resulting in a No. 19 ranking for Illinois, their first top-25 ranking since Sept. 11, 2004.

Game 1 – Illinois vs. North Carolina

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The Tar Heels came into the State Farm Illini Classic as the underdog of the four teams competing. But don’t get the idea that the Illini weren’t concerned with their first opponent.

“We don’t look at them and say, ‘This is the easy one, and tomorrow’s the two tough ones,'” coach Hardin said.

But on Friday, in front of a crowd of 3,129 fans at Stuff Huff, it looked as if the worry was all for naught as North Carolina never seemed to stand a chance, falling to the Illini, 25-21, 25-14, 25-12.

In the Illini’s first game that featured the NCAA’s new scoring system, with 25 points winning a set, the Tar eels kept the first set close, tying the game 16-16, but Illinois pulled away, overcoming six first set errors. The Illini never trailed in the last two sets.

Hardin was struck by the focus that the Illini displayed in the last set.

“The last few years we’ve had some ups and downs, where we might’ve dropped one of those (sets),” he said, “I was really impressed with the maturity level of the team coming out in (set) three and not messing around.”

Laura DeBruler, the State Farm Illini Classic MVP and co-Big Ten Player of the Week, led the team with 14 kills and had 15 digs. Prized recruit Michelle Bartsch followed with nine kills in her first game. Ashley Edinger led the defense with 19 digs.

Game 2 – Illinois vs. No. 23 New Mexico State

The Illini held a comfortable 20-12 lead in the first set of Saturday’s match against New Mexico State. But the Aggies went on a 14-4 run to take the set and control of the match.

“As soon as we got to twenty we started doing things that we don’t usually do,” senior setter Lizzie Bazzetta said.

But the Illini showed great resolve, closing out a nerve racking second set and winning a tight third, taking control of the match and winning 24-26, 25-21, 25-19, 25-14.

The second set looked as if it might come to the same fateful end as the first for the Illini, with the No. 23 Aggies making a 5-2 run to make the game 24-21, but the Illini closed out the set, possibly saving the match.

“Every team’s going to do that at the end of a set, but we just needed to keep staying steady on our side and keep going after it,” Bazzetta said.

The third set was the tightest throughout, with no team leading by more than two points until the Illini won the set with a 9-2 run.

DeBruler once again led the team with 20 kills, and also tallied 11 digs. Hillary Haen led the Illini with 23 assists and Edinger had 20 digs.

Game 3 – Illinois vs. No. 11 Oregon

Coming out of the locker room before the third set of Saturday’s match versus No. 11 Oregon, the Illini were not only down two sets, but they hadn’t led.

Call it a good speech by coach Hardin or call it fatigue on part of the Ducks, who had just finished a game against North Carolina, but the Illini came out a different team after the break.

In the third set the Illini never trailed, using a newfound cohesiveness that was absent in the first two sets. It looked as if it would not be enough, though, as the Illini trailed 19-14 in the fourth set, falling back into the chaotic style of play that had hurt the team in the first two sets.

But Hardin’s team looked in control the rest of the match, using an 11-2 run to win the fourth set and winning the fifth, tie-breaking set 15-13.

Hardin said that even though the Illini struggled in five set matches last season, there were no concerns going into the tie-breaking set.

“We feel like we got that monkey off our back through our play in Europe, so I didn’t even think about that,” Hardin said.

And he doesn’t blame any Illini fans who were pessimistic after the first two sets.

“I think anybody that watched the way we got thumped in the first two (sets) wouldn’t have expected us to come back and neither did I,” Hardin said.