Illini volleyball season ends with 3-0 loss to Purdue in Sweet 16

Freshman defensive specialist Danielle Davis had the season in her hands, as the Illinois volleyball team had fallen down to Purdue 2-0 in the match and trailed 24-19 in set three of the NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16. Davis sent her serve over the net as orange-clad Illini fans in State Farm Center watched with their hearts in their throats. The Boilermakers controlled the serve, just as they had all night, and eventually set outside hitter Sam Epenesa for the kill.

And in the blink of an eye, the Illinois volleyball team’s season came to a close. Purdue advanced to the Elite Eight to face Wisconsin by scores of 28-26, 25-20, 25-19.

“The whole time for us, I felt like we never really got in a great rhythm in anything really, offensively or defensively,” head coach Kevin Hambly said. “Probably a byproduct of these kids never playing in this moment before. You can tell (Purdue) was comfortable in a Sweet 16 match, and it didn’t seem like we were.” 

The first set of the match was reflective of both of these team’s regular season meetings: close, competitive and spirited. One moment, State Farm Center would be rocking with excitement and in the next it would be silent enough to hear the players’ voices on the blue and grey NCAA-themed court.

The opening set started off as tight as any match the Illini played all season. An early 6-4 lead by Purdue proved to be the biggest disparity in score until Illinois took a seemingly commanding 21-24 lead after a three-point run fueled by remarkable serves from sophomore outside hitter Ali Stark. At the brink of a momentum-clinching defeat in the set, the Boilermakers’ star hitters Kiki Jones and Val Nichol came to life, combining for four late kills to tie up the score at 24 and eventually take the set 28-26.

“I think throughout the entire match, not only that set, we weren’t attacking and executing like we should have,” sophomore outside hitter Jocelynn Birks said. “Even when we had a couple points on them, we backed down and stopped executing, and they were fighting and scrapping and executing the entire time.”

The second set of the match did not retain the claustrophobic feel of the first set, as it seemed both teams left all their energy on the court in the first. Purdue came out strong early, with momentum on its side, to take a quick 6-2 lead, which the Illini would tie at 16. Despite the tie, the Boilermaker never let go of their stranglehold on the set, as they quickly regained a 21-17 lead that would never be lost before taking the set 25-20.

Errors became the theme of the set, as Illinois committed six more than in the first set for a total of nine. Purdue committed seven in the first two sets. The errors limited to the Illini offense, which hit .206 in the first set but was limited to .098 in the second. Purdue’s hitting percentage fell from .286 to .184.

“We knew (Purdue’s) defense was good,” Hambly said. “We knew it’d be a defensive battle. We just made too many errors. … I thought we got impatient because we weren’t scoring and made some bad choices. I think they’re a great defensive team. They’re tough to score against.”

Set three mirrored the set prior, as Purdue took control early. Illinois kept the set close through the midway point until the Purdue defense made blocks and forced errors on a six-point rally to go up 24-17 and put the game out of reach for the Illini.

“I’m not satisfied with the season, but I’m also not super disappointed about where we were at,” Hambly said. “I’m disappointed in how we played tonight. I think we could have played better, but I’m not disappointed in the season.”

Moving forward, the Illini will retain just about everyone with the exception of seniors Jennifer Beltran and Courtney Abrahamovich, who are scheduled to graduate.

“For me, I don’t think it’s really hit me yet,” Beltran said. “But I mean, I’m definitely not selfish. I said something to the team, kind of ‘learn something for next year,’ because I know their seasons starts right now. … I just want them to hopefully learn from this and take it to next year and make a run at it, because they’ve got another shot.

“Everything isn’t going to go our way all the time. Sometimes these things happen. I wasn’t expecting it to end like this, but it did. I’ll just do what I can to be there for them and do whatever I can do.”

Blake can be reached at [email protected].