Illinois’ defense shuts down Northwestern on Birks' special night

By Daniel Dexter

The No. 18 Illini’s second win of the week against the Wildcats was much less dramatic than their first, which ended up being a five-set comeback victory in Evanston, Ill. On Saturday night in Huff Hall, Illinois controlled the match from the start and, aside from a third-set hiccup, claimed the match handily in four sets (25-17, 25-18, 25-27, 25-18).EJ

The team recorded a season-high 19.5 blocks in the matchup, which helped Illinois contain Northwestern’s attack. Opposite hitter Naya Crittenden and middle blocker Katie Stadick took part in 11 and 10 blocks, respectively.EJ

Crittenden was tasked with the job of stopping the Wildcats’ go-to scorer Symone Abbott from getting into a rhythm. Even though Abbott finished the night with 17 kills, Crittenden could see the frustration from her and the rest of the Northwestern squad, which hit for only .126 on the night.EJ

“It was funny to see,” Crittenden said. “I don’t think Katie and I did anything different than just trying to get the ball over. They reacted how they wanted to react, and we kept doing what we were supposed to be doing.”

Head coach Kevin Hambly praised Crittenden and Stadick for doing their part on the defensive end, which opened opportunities up for the offense. In the sets Illinois won, it recorded a hitting percentage of .239 or higher.EJ

Birks led the team with 22 kills, breaking the Illinois all-time kills record in the process. She came into the match needing just two kills to reach the mark, and is now the sole record-holder with 1,853 career kills. She broke Laura DeBruler’s program record of 1,833EJ

“I couldn’t have done it without my teammates,” Birks said. “(Alexis Viliunas) has done a great job the past three years of getting me the ball and working with me. (Jordyn Poulter) has come in and also has worked really hard to learn how to set me because apparently it’s difficult. I couldn’t do it without them.”

Birks managed just two kills in the first set, but outside hitter Michelle Strizak found her stride, scoring off seven kills in the set.EJ The junior contributed to the Illini’s 10-3 run in the set, on which Northwestern committed six attacking errors.EJ

Illinois committed just five errors in the entire set, which Hambly pointed out as being the main difference in the sets Illinois won. The team recorded five or less errors in the sets it won and 10 errors in the only set it lost.EJ

Despite the high error count in the third set, Illinois still managed to stage a comeback after being down 18-23. The team went on a 6-1 run to tie the set at 24, before the Wildcats ultimately won the set 27-25.

The set loss, however, didn’t discourage the Illini. They opened the fourth set on a 5-1 run, and after the Wildcats came back to tie it at 10, Illinois went on a 6-0 run to claim the lead for good the rest of the way.EJ

With the win, Illinois now finds itself on a four-match win streak in a critical time in the season. Hambly said the team is finally starting to play the way it needs to in order to compete in nationals. He admitted to being disappointed with the team’s early losses that took it out of contention for a Big Ten title, but he is content with the growth the team is making, which will make it a contender in the national tournament.

“What’s great about this is that we don’t feel like we’re in a panic to make the (national) tournament,” Hambly said. “We feel like we’re in a mode where we’re trying to get better, trying to work on things; we’re grinding, and trying to stay true to the process. That’s where you want to be at this time of year.”

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