Illini handed 1st loss in front of sellout Nebraska crowd

The last undefeated NCAA Division I volleyball team has been beaten.

Saturday’s match at Nebraska resulted in No. 1 Illinois’ first loss of the season and gave the No. 4 Cornhuskers (20-1, 10-0) the edge in the Big Ten.

“We missed assignments, we did things we haven’t done … we didn’t play the level we needed to play on that night after the first set in order to win,” Illinois head coach Kevin Hambly said. “It’s as simple as that, we didn’t execute our game plan.”

The 3-1 loss marks the second straight season the Illini (20-1, 9-1) have lost in Nebraska’s hostile volleyball environment. Junior Erin Johnson said the court felt a little smaller and the fans were more “in your face.”

“I think definitely in the fourth set we got out of our style of play, and that really rattled us,” Johnson said. “I think the environment affected us a lot and we just need to be tougher.”

The NU Coliseum sold out with 4,198 fans. Hambly said Nebraska is a very emotional team and fed off the crowd’s energy.

Illinois started the match strong, winning the first set 26-24 while hitting .429. But from then on, Hambly said the Illini couldn’t gain control and Nebraska kept them off balance.

“I thought we came out playing really well and put the pressure on Nebraska, because we knew we had to, and then in the second set we missed too many serves and didn’t take advantage of some opportunities,” Hambly said.

The Illini then lost the second set, 25-18, and the third, 25-19.

Then came the fourth set, where Illinois scored just 11 points, its fewest in a set all season.

“When we were playing well, I think that was because our defense was on,” Johnson said. “I thought especially in the fourth set we relied on our offense too much, we weren’t making enough plays on defense and blocking, too.”

The team had five blocks to Nebraska’s 11. The offense struggled as well, failing to hit above .200 in the second, third and fourth sets. Senior outsides Colleen Ward and Michelle Bartsch led the team with 17 and 22 kills, respectively. Both middles Johnson and redshirt freshman Anna Dorn hit .056 and -.400, respectively.

“We need to have a complete effort against a team like that, and that’s one of the things we can learn; we need to bring our game,” Hambly said. “We need to perform against the top teams in the country in order to beat them.”

The Illini intend to learn from their first loss. Johnson said playing in the hostile environment provided good experience, especially for when the end of the season rolls around.

“I mean it’s definitely just a bump in the road,” Ward said. “We weren’t expecting to go undefeated this season, it was just play each game as they come, and losses unfortunately happen. We’re moving on from it and using it as a learning experience and definitely making sure it doesn’t happen again.”