Illini volleyball completes comeback to win seventh straight

Last season, the Illinois volleyball team faced a 2-0 deficit against Michigan on the road, only to improbably win the match in five. The victory spurred a six-match winning streak that propelled the Illini to the NCAA tournament.

The two teams faced off in Ann Arbor on Saturday and it was deja vu all over again.

Illinois (18-5, 10-2 Big Ten) again quickly fell behind 2-0 against Michigan but came back to claim the match in five sets for the Illini’s second win of the weekend and seventh in a row. Illinois also topped Michigan State in four sets on Friday in East Lansing.

“Any win on the road is tough, they’re important. Especially with where we are and we control our own destiny in the conference,” head coach Kevin Hambly said.

The Illini were led by Jocelynn Birks and Alexis Viliunas, who each posted double-doubles against Michigan. Birks recorded 26 kills and 13 digs, while Viliunas tied a career-high with 20 digs to go with 53 assists.

Michigan’s Abby Cole had 20 kills and Adeja Lambert put down 16 kills with 17 digs. Illinois forced 32 hitting errors from Michigan and held the Wolverines to a .185 hitting percentage for the match. The Illini outblocked the Wolverines on the match, 12-7.

The Illini had a 21-16 lead in the second set before the Wolverines rattled off nine consecutive points to steal away the set.

“We just couldn’t put a ball away and we really struggled,” Hambly said. “For the first time in a long time, I saw a fracture in the team.”

After halftime, however, the Illini were focused and would lead for the majority of the third and fourth sets before taking the fifth set wire-to-wire.

In Friday’s match against Michigan State, the teams split the first two sets but the Illini gained control again after halftime to take the match in four sets. The Spartans didn’t hold a lead in the first or third sets.

Against the Spartans, Birks and Viliunas each recorded double-doubles again, but it was Morganne Criswell who led the Illini with 19 kills.

“They carried us,” Hambly said of Criswell, Birks and Liz McMahon, who added 12 kills. “We didn’t play our best.”

Before the matches, Hambly said the Michigan weekend road trip is always one of the toughest of the year. This marked the first time Illinois has swept the road trip since 2003, the first time Hambly had been a part of a sweep of the two teams, although he was hesitant to make a big deal out of the results.

“Everyone is bringing stats about what we have done and what we haven’t done. The thing that I like is that we’re unfinished,” Hambly said. “I’m not really happy with the way that we’re playing, but we’re finding a way to win.”

Stephen can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @steve_bourbon.