Illini volleyball ends season on 3-win streak

Illinois’ Jocelynn Birks goes for the attack against Michigan at Huff Hall on Saturday. The victory capped the Illini’s regular season with a 3-win streak.

The Illinois volleyball team ended its regular season on a high note.

The No. 11 Illini went 3-0 in their final three matches of the regular season. Illinois (23-7, 15-4 Big Ten) swept Indiana (15-17, 6-14) Nov. 22 on the road and came away with both a five-set victory over No. 10 Nebraska on Wednesday and a four-set win against Michigan on Saturday at Huff Hall.

Hambly said the team improved defensively over its last three matches and the Illini learned how to adapt quicker, two skills Illinois will need if it wants to make a run in the NCAA tournament.

“It will come down to how fast can you figure teams out and defend,” Hambly said. “Can you pick the lock fast enough to give yourself a chance to win?”

Against the Cornhuskers on Wednesday, the Illini proved they could adapt to both injury and illness during the course of a match.

Eight players from the Illini bench saw action against Nebraska as Hambly fiddled with the Illini lineup.

Jocelynn Birks left the match in the fifth set with a knee injury that proved to be nothing serious. Her replacement, Morganne Criswell, was recovering on the bench from her own knee injury. Jocelynn made her return in the game against Michigan. Junior setter Alexis Viliunas’ play in the match was hindered by the flu.

Illinois and Nebraska (20-9, 14-6) split the first four sets Wednesday. The Illini took the first and third sets with scores of 25-16 and 25-18, respectively, and the Cornhuskers won the second set 22-25.

Nebraska negated the 2-1 Illinois set lead and answered back in the fourth set, winning it by a score of 24-26.

Even without Birks, who led the Illini with 22 kills and 10 digs in the match, Illinois finished the match and took care of Nebraska in the fifth set by a score of 15-10.

Hambly saw the bright side in the Illini being banged up against the Cornhuskers. He said the experience gained by the eight players off the Illinois bench will be invaluable in the NCAA tournament.

“It was nice to get a lot of people a lot of time to play,” Hambly said.

While its match against Nebraska showed Illinois could overcome adversity, its match against the Wolverines proved the Illini dominate when the offensive attack is varied.

Illinois had seven players record a kill against Michigan and although Birks yet again led the team in kills, with 16, it was sophomore middle blocker Katie Stadick who finished with eight kills and nine blocks that led the way for the team.

“Our passers did a really good job of getting (Alexis Viliunas) good passes so we could get the middles involved,” Birks said. “The middles did a really nice job of getting up and working hard. It’s awesome that we can do that and have such a spread out offense.”

Although they dropped the first set to the Wolverines, the Illini won the match convincingly by scores of 22-25, 25-20, 25-14 and 25-14.

As the regular season draws to a close, Stadick said it’s a good thing the Illini picked up their energy and intensity and have played well going into the tournament.

“It will definitely help us moving forward because that’s what teams will be doing in the tournament,” Stadick said. “It will be somebody’s last game no matter what.”

Nicholas can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter