Illini volleyball drops heartbreaking five-setter to Wisconsin

By Lucas Wright

Tweet: .@IlliniVBall falls in five sets to No. 10 Badgers

Another 50-50 game, another loss for the Illinois volleyball team.

The No. 18 Illini (18-10, 9-8 Big Ten) fell in five sets to the No. 10 Wisconsin Badgers (21-6, 13-4) Wednesday night in Huff Hall.

Head coach Kevin Hambly’s squad had chances throughout the match to take control, but let each chance slip away.

The first set opened with a slew of Illinois errors, leading to an early 5-0 lead for Wisconsin. The Illini showed potential in the set, coming within one point at multiple times in the set, but nine total errors cost the team a set in the early going.

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It seemed as though a completely different Illinois team took the floor in the second set, as the Illini took off to an 11-1 lead, behind several kills from senior Jocelynn Birks and freshman Ali Bastianelli. From there the Illini went into cruise control behind a rejuvenated crowd to take the set 25-10.

Sets three and four were the most highly contested of the night, each going to 22-22, but they were two sides to the same coin for Illinois. Each set was catalyzed by juniors Naya Crittenden and Katie Stadick, who combined for 17 kills over the two sets. In the third set, the Illini reverted back to their earlier play, losing three straight points and dropping the third. The set was difficult for Hambly and the Illini, but was proud of the fight his team showed.

“We couldn’t close that set out, even though we were up late,” Hambly said. “You have a hard time getting going after something like that and I thought our girls worked their way into playing at a high level in that fourth set.”

The fourth was Illinois’ chance for revenge, sitting in a 22 all tie with the match on the line. As the scoring went back-and-forth, the Illini found themselves fighting back from match-point twice, before ultimately finishing the set 28-26 with a Birks ace and Badger error.

Momentum seemed to be in Illinois’ favor throughout the fifth set, as Birks rattled off three kills to put the Illini up 8-5. Yet, the Badgers showed their poise, and took 10 of the next 14 points, to top Illinois 15-12 in the final set.

Stadick and Crittenden led the way for the Illini offense with 14 kills apiece, while Birks followed suit with 13. Freshman setter Jordyn Poulter tallied 54 assists throughout the five-sets, and found a groove with Stadick early on.

“She just did a great job of dishing me the ball and putting up great sets,” Stadick said. “It helps when our passing and defense does such a great job of putting the ball in places where she could get the ball to me.”

Despite one of its best overall offensive showings, the Illini leave the Wisconsin matchup with another blemish on their record and a slowly closing door on the NCAA tournament. Although Hambly is confident in his team’s ability to make it in the tournament, it’s no secret that they wanted this win against Wisconsin.

“We really fought and clawed and scrapped,” Hambly said. “It’s hard not to show it for me, that was a tough one.”

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