No. 7 Illini volleyball commits 28 errors, falls to No. 19 Wisconsin in four sets

By Eli Schwadron

Redshirt junior Romana Kriskova transferred from Virginia Commonwealth to Wisconsin in 2013.

Shortly after arriving in Madison, Wisconsin, Kriskova was hit by a car while riding her bicycle on campus — the injury required surgery and she missed most of the 2014 season. This year, the 6-foot-2 Slovakian outside hitter is back in action, providing major numbers for the No. 17-ranked Badgers (9-4) — including a 15-kill performance in a 4-1 win over the No. 7-ranked Illini (11-3) last night.

Kriskova posted nine of her team-high 15 kills over the first two sets, which Wisconsin won 25-16 and 25-21. The 2013 Atlantic 10 Player of the Year possesses a unique hitting form; when she rises up, she finishes her entire arm swing prior to making contact with the ball. Wisconsin’s hot start snapped Illinois’ 13-0 streak in opening sets this season.

According to Illinois head coach Kevin Hambly, his team was playing timidly during the first two sets, in which the Illini committed 15 errors and finished with a .120 hitting percentage. 

“We weren’t attacking aggressively — we played with a little bit of fear it seemed like,” Hambly said. “(Over the final two sets) I think we attacked better, but I think certainly Wisconsin scrapped, and they fought, and they clawed.”

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Libero Brandi Donnelly (21 digs) echoed her coach’s statement. 

“(Hambly) said he wanted us to play more calm, ‘cuz he said he could see a little bit of fear in our faces,” Donnelly said. “We were just kinda playing tense … we were playing on our heels and kind of just letting them attack us.”

The Illini made uncharacteristic mistakes against a strong Badgers attack led by junior Lauren Carlini (36 assists, 9 digs, 3 blocks), on of the Big Ten’s top setters. After committing a combined 15 errors in victories over Maryland and Rutgers last weekend, Illinois finished with a whopping 28 errors against Wisconsin. The Illini had a .178 hitting percentage on the night and just one service ace compared to the Badgers’ four.

Outside hitter Jocelynn Birks was a bright spot for the Illini in the loss. The redshirt senior posted a game-high 20 kills and a .366 hitting percentage. She was a game-time decision and ultimately felt healthy enough to play, while she still somewhat suffered from the same back spasms that kept her out against Maryland and Rutgers.

Hambly said Birks struggled two weekends ago, but he was pleased with her performance against the Badgers. 

“She looked like the kid that we’ve seen the last four, five years,” Hambly said. “She’s a warrior. She battles. She’s been in a lot of these matches.”

After falling in the first two sets, Illinois battled back with a 25-21 win in set three thanks to big plays from freshman setter Jordyn Poulter, who tallied 35 assists and threeblocks on the night. She found Birks consistently, but her connections with middle blocker Katie Stadick (13 kills) and outside hitter Michelle Strizak (10 kills) were not as strong and often led to errors.

Wisconsin again found its rhythm in set four, closing out Illinois by a score of 25-22. The Illini were winning midway through the set before the Badgers called timeout, regrouped and captured a lead that they would never lose.

According to Hambly, lack of efficiency on offense was a main issue. He noted Stadick’s .200 hitting percentage — down from her .412 season average — as a key detriment to the offense. Hambly said the execution, as a team, simply wasn’t there.

“You have to make the swing, you have to make the pass, you have to make the dig. We needed to be tougher,” Hambly said. “And we haven’t won a big match [with] this group. The group last year did. This group needs to figure out how to win a big match.”

The Illini got back to Champaign around 2 a.m. last night. They’ll have a light lift session in place of practice Thursday before traveling to Minnesota for a 7 p.m. Saturday tilt.

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