Florida outslugs Illinois volleyball in five sets

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Illinois’ Joceynn Birks (7) goes for an attack during the Sweet 16 match against Florida at Hilton Coliseum on Friday.

By Stephen Bourbon

AMES, Iowa – In a matchup between two teams separated by one spot in the polls, an extremely close match was expected between No. 8 Florida and No. 9 Illinois.

The match lived up to its billing as the Gators fought off the Illini in the fifth and final set to advance to the Elite 8 for a date with No. 1 Stanford.

Jocelynn Birks led the Illini with 22 kills and 13 digs and Morganne Criswell added 14 kills. Florida was led by Alex Holston with 18 kills and Rhamat Alhassan, who had 15 kills and nine blocks.

In the fifth set, Illinois fought out of an early 7-2 deficit. With the score at 7-4, Katie Stadick and Criswell combined on a block to make it 7-5 and the Illini combined for blocks on two more plays in rapid succession to close the gap to 8-6.

The Illini never led in the final set, but tied the score at 14 and were within one point eight separate times in the final frame. Criswell’s swing on the match’s final play went long and the Gators were dancing on the court.

“They had some weapons that we struggled to stop and they took advantage of that,” head coach Kevin Hambly said. “I thought they passed extremely well and that freed them up to get to the middles.”

Illinois couldn’t contain the Florida middles when the Gators passed well. The freshman, Alhassan, who led the nation in hitting percentage for the regular season, put away seven kills on 10 attempts in the third set alone, but the Illini were able to win the set despite the Gators hitting .351 in the frame.

After not playing in the first two sets, the Gators’ junior middle blocker Shainah Joseph came in for the final three sets and finished with seven kills, while hitting .538.

“I think Joseph turned the tide when she came in,” Hambly said. “Even when we started committing on it, and jumping on it, they were still just going over the top on us. I thought passing, in a sense, they won.”

Florida jumped out of the gate by winning the first set. After the Illini took a 4-1 lead in the first set, the Gators went on a 6-2 run to take a lead they would not give up for the rest of the set despite 13 tie scores.

After committing 13 service errors in the first three sets, the Gators were nearly perfect from the service line in the final two sets, with just three errors.

“We play 10 times, we might go five and five,” Florida head coach Mary Wise said. “An elite level performance from both teams.”

With Illinois holding a 6-3 lead in the second set, setter Alexis Viliunas landed on the foot of a Florida player while going up for a block and crashed to the court. She left the floor immediately but returned mere points later after giving Hambly the thumbs-up.  

Viliunas was able to play for the rest of the match and led the Illini to victory in the second-set, 25-21. Criswell capped off the set with three consecutive kills for Illinois.

But ultimately it wasn’t enough as the Illini saw their season end in the Sweet 16 for the second consecutive season.

“It was a great college volleyball match,” Hambly said. “It’s what college volleyball is about.”

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