Illinois volleyball battles heat and 5-setter to win Illini Classic

By Ros Dumalo

If there was anything hotter than the temperature inside Huff Hall this weekend, it was the game of senior Michelle Bartsch.

Temperatures reached nearly 100 degrees on both Friday and Saturday, when Illinois hosted the State Farm Illini Classic. And without air conditioning in a 1,622-fan packed gym, Huff Hall was no refuge from the heat.

But Bartsch made the going easy, especially with an overall performance that named her the tournament’s MVP.

“I thought she was studly in the first two matches,” head coach Kevin Hambly said. “I think she’s playing like an All-American. That’s what she is.”

Bartsch hit .273 over the weekend – including the program’s third “20-20 performance”: (she had 21 kills and 23 digs) in nine years – and helped her volleyball squad go 3-0 over the weekend to claim the tournament’s title for the sixth straight time.

Get The Daily Illini in your inbox!

  • Catch the latest on University of Illinois news, sports, and more. Delivered every weekday.
  • Stay up to date on all things Illini sports. Delivered every Monday.
This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.
Thank you for subscribing!

But that final win came in the form of a five-set comeback, of which the No. 7 Illini needed more than Bartsch to pull through.

No. 7 Illinois faced No. 21 Dayton, and found itself on the verge of an upset after dropping the first two sets, 18-25, 20-25.

Illinois was outhit by Dayton 78 percent to 58 percent in the first set, and 69 percent to 56 percent in the second. Coupled with eight errors, mostly net violations, the Orange and Blue retreated to their locker room during intermission in search of a response.

“We asked ourselves downstairs what we’re about,” Hambly said. “Who are we this year? Are we going to be a team that folds, that (lets others) come into our place and beat us up? Or are going to protect our house? Protect each other?”

For the Illini, a pep talk seemed to be enough. They increased their offensive game to hit 75 percent and never looked back on the lead, taking the third set, 25-20.

“In between two and three (sets), we talked about playing with more heart, more passion, and I think that hit home to a lot of us,” Bartsch said.

Freshman Liz McMahon, who didn’t see any playing time in the first two sets, pounded two kills that gave the Illini the 25-23 fourth-set victory.

Illinois took the fifth, 15-12, to end the match just a few minutes away from 11 p.m.

“(Liz) was ready,” setter Annie Luhrsen said. “I was up at the net in row two, standing right next to her, and she said, ‘I’m good.’ And that’s what you want to hear from your hitters.”

The junior posted 68 assists and found a way to connect with her hitters in the last few sets, especially with senior Colleen Ward and junior Erin Johnson, who were named all-tournament team with Bartsch.

Illinois has the MTSU Tournament on Friday before it opens its conference season.

That weekend will be the last time Illinois gets to experiment with different lineups and rotations and mesh the veterans with the young players.

“We just felt like we know we have more to give,” Luhrsen said about Illinois’ comeback. “We got to show each other and everyone what that is, and that’s what we came out and did.”