Illinois finds redemption in defeat of No. 15 Michigan

With just eight matches remaining in conference play, the No. 6 Illinois volleyball team took a big step toward the Big Ten title over the weekend.

The Illini (19-3, 11-1 Big Ten) picked up a pair of victories and extended their lead to two games.

The first win came against the second place No. 15 Michigan Wolverines on Friday and the second was against the Michigan State Spartans on Saturday.

Despite his team’s first place standing, Illini head coach Kevin Hambly doesn’t want to look too far in advance and knows the title is far from guaranteed.

“We play 20 matches and it’s what your record is at 20 matches,” Hambly said. “If you start looking back or looking around and worried about what your record is and worried about what your standings are, you get in trouble. We’re not gonna do that for a minute; we’re gonna keep our head forward and keep pushing and try to get better as a team.”

Friday’s match offered a chance for the Illini to redeem themselves, as the visiting Wolverines (20-4, 9-3) were the only team to defeat Illinois in Big Ten play.

In the previous matchup, Michigan senior setter Lexi Zimmerman had 13 kills and fueled a strong Wolverines attack, but that wasn’t the case this time around.

Collectively, the team hit just .151 and Zimmerman had just three kills on 15 swings with four errors.

Freshman libero Jennifer Bonilla recorded 28 digs to help lead the defensive effort, which also had 14 blocks.

“I made sure I wasn’t going to let (Zimmerman) score on me and she did once I think,” Bonilla said. “I knew I had to stop, watch what was going on, and I really just focused on that a lot.”

In the match, Illinois came out strong and quickly built an 8-2 lead and rode that momentum to a 25-11 first set win.

Michigan turned the momentum in its favor and won the second frame 25-16 before Illinois came back and took the third 25-20.

With their backs to the wall, the Wolverines faced match point three times in the fourth game, but stayed composed and took the last six points to win 26-24.

In the final set, the Illini opened a 10-5 lead and didn’t look back, winning 15-12.

Saturday’s match against Michigan State (11-12, 3-9) went quicker for Illinois as it picked up a three-set victory, 25-19, 25-17, 25-20.

In both the first and third sets of the match, the Illini found themselves down early but showed resiliency in battling back and eventually picking up the wins.

Junior outside hitter Colleen Ward hopes that falling behind early doesn’t turn into a trend.

“It feels good to come back being down by that much, but we would much rather be ahead by that much in the beginning,” Ward said.

Senior middle blocker Johanna Bangert said the team “took a step in the right direction,” but can do better if it puts in the effort.

“It’s a matter of all those extra things,” Bangert said. “Just being disciplined, making sure we’re stopped whenever the setter has the ball, and just really working hard and waiting and seeing and then just getting after it.”