Record crowd assists Illinois volleyball against Purdue

For the first time in nearly a decade, Huff Hall was filled from top to bottom.

Fans lined up outside before the doors opened.

But once inside, they had to scan the rows, searching for any open seats, which were filling up quickly.

Eventually, the only space available to watch the volleyball match was on the floor, as the gym reached a standing-room-only crowd of 4,261.

More than 500 people were turned away, and didn’t get to witness the showdown between No. 1 Illinois and No. 12 Purdue.

“People got turned away, and I hope that next time they come earlier and try to make the match because they missed out,” head coach Kevin Hambly said. “Honestly, I don’t want anyone to be turned away. I wish we had space for them … I hope people left this match thinking, ‘Hey, I had fun. I was glad I was a part of that.’”

Both teams entered the gym unbeaten.

But by the end of Saturday night, Illinois came out as the only undefeated Division I team in the nation.

After defeating Indiana the night before, Illinois wrapped up its weekend with a tight win over Purdue in four sets, 26-24, 25-20, 23-25, 25-23.

The Illini improve to 15-0 (4-0 Big Ten), while the Boilermakers fell to 14-1 (3-1).

“I think it was just two teams grinding out, and we started to rush at the end of the game,” junior Annie Luhrsen said of the third set. “I think that’s what made a difference with us, but (Purdue) also played really well, and we definitely have to credit them for that.”

Purdue outhit Illinois in three of the four sets, but Illinois’ out-blocked Purdue 11-8 and forced it to commit six more errors.

Sophomore libero Jennifer Beltran had one of her best nights with 26 digs.

“I thought that (Beltran) worked really hard tonight,” Luhrsen said. “If you guys see her before the game, she has the coaches hitting as hard as they can at her, and it’s just cool to see her executing that to her in the games, getting amazing digs.”

Luhrsen also credited seniors Michelle Bartsch and Colleen Ward for their contributions on the defensive end, as they posted a combined 32 digs.

While the junior setter praised her teammates for their efforts, she added 44 assists that shared the offense with her hitters.

Bartsch and Ward combined for 29 kills and junior Erin Johnson added 11.

Freshman Liz McMahon set the early pace for her team as she posted nine kills for the night and exploded with excitement after key plays.

“That’s exactly what we need, just seeing a player get like that just gives more fire to the team,” Ward said of McMahon. “Overall, you’ll work harder to get that next ball because you know the team is more invested.”

This week, the Illini won’t have the crowd behind them, facing Ohio State and Penn State on the road.

Though his team’s perfect record has created buzz for his fans, Hambly is focused on his team’s performance — not its record.

“We’re not judging on wins and losses,” Hambly said. “What’s going to mean stuff to us is if we make a nice run to the tournament, if we continue to play at a high level, if we can find a way to really reach our potential.”