Illini stun Wolverines in comeback victory

Sometimes lightning does strike twice.

After the first two sets of its match against No. 17 Michigan (15-9, 5-8 Big Ten) in Huff Hall on Wednesday night, the Illinois volleyball team looked as if it was in position to fight for its seventh consecutive split week.

At the end of halftime though, the Illini came out of the locker room fired up, looking like a completely different team. They fought back en route to a nail-biting five-set comeback victory by scores of 18-25, 19-25, 25-21, 25-15, 15-10.The last time both teams met, the Illini also came from behind to win in five sets after going down 2-1.

The Illini put on a complete team effort, as sophomore outside hitter Jocelynn Birks led the game with 22 kills in addition to junior Morganne Criswell’s 19 and Liz McMahon’s 15. Sophomore setter Alexis Viliunas notched a double-double with 55 assists and 13 digs, and the Illini defense accounted for 13 total blocks, holding the Wolverines to a .224 hitting percentage. The Illini hit .274.

“You never want to be down 0-2,” head coach Kevin Hambly said. “To see (the team) turn that around — that’s not an easy thing to do. I don’t think people understand how hard that is. To make that change, to see the whole team just absolutely put their hearts out there and fight. It was great to see.”

After what Criswell described as a “lack of energy” in the team’s first two sets, Hambly’s halftime speech altered the Illini’s mindset and energy level going into the pivotal third set. The speech lasted long enough to earn Illinois a red card violation for a delay of game, costing the team a point before the set even began. Hambly said he asked his team to “fight, protect (Huff Hall), protect each other, and do your job.” 

Freshman defensive specialist Danielle Davis made one of the game’s most crucial saves at the beginning of set four, in what looked to be a service ace by Michigan. After an errant dig, Davis sprinted toward the baseline at full speed, crashing into the barricades, as she was able to reach the ball and keep the play alive long enough for Birks to get the kill and deplete the momentum Michigan was starting to gain.

From that point on, the Illini maintained control of all facets of the game, shutting down the Wolverines’ senior outside hitter Lexi Erwin, who had eight kills and hit .318 in the first two sets. Erwin finished the match with 20 kills, in addition to an inefficient .186 hitting percentage.

“We made adjustments in the back row,” senior libero Jennifer Beltran said. “We pulled our left fronts back, so I could move a little deeper, because she was scoring left and right.”

The win marks the second in a row for Illinois and leaves the team just one game under .500 at 11-12 overall and 7-6 in the conference. The Illini will face No. 13 Michigan State (18-6, 7-5 Big Ten) on Saturday with a chance to reach .500 and aid Illinois’ chances of reaching the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2011. The last time the two teams faced each other in East Lansing, Mich., the Spartans dominated the Illini in a sweep, disallowing Illinois to reach 20 points in any set. 

Blake can be reached at [email protected]