Illinois swept by Minnesota in Sweet 16

By Daniel Dexter

A Minnesota kill in the third set put an end to a tumultuous season for the Illinois volleyball team.

The Illini entered Friday’s Sweet 16 match in Des Moines, Iowa, against Big Ten champion Minnesota looking to accomplish a feat they failed to accomplish the past two seasons: advance past the Sweet 16. The Gophers, however, closed the door on any chance of that happening, sweeping the Illini to end their season in the Sweet 16 for the third year in a row (25-22, 25-23, 25-17).

“When we were playing well, we were slowing their offense down and stopping them,” outside hitter Jocelynn Birks said. “I think towards the end, we weren’t able to make the plays on defense that we needed to close out the first two sets. I think we could have had those sets if we made plays at the end.”

Illinois couldn’t capitalize on an opportunity at the end of the first set while it was holding on to a 22-18 lead. Minnesota took over and won the set after ripping off a 7-0 run, which included five kills from outside hitter Sarah Wilhite.

Illinois opposite hitter Naya Crittenden said it felt like her team gave away the first set. She stressed how much the players and coaches talked before the match on the importance of maintaining composure throughout. It has been a problem the team struggled with all season.

“Sometimes when we got down by a few points we get really frantic and freak out,” Crittenden said. “So it’s really hard to get out of those mindsets … We knew with a team like Minnesota, if you get down and start to get frantic, it’s going to be very hard to dig yourself out.”

Crittenden led the defensive effort with six blocks on the night and added seven kills on the offensive end. Hambly praised her play on both sides of the ball, and said he wished the team could have gotten her the ball more on the offensive end.

Outside hitter Michelle Strizak was the offensive leader for the Illini, scoring six of her team-high 12 kills in the first set. Hambly said that she was a big reason that the team was in the match at the beginning, but that it was unable to develop a cohesive rhythm.

“It wasn’t all together at the right time,” Hambly said. “It was this kid’s scoring and this kid’s not. We needed to have a more consistent team effort offensively.”

The second was the closest set of the match, but ultimately had a similar result as the first. The Gophers closed it out on a 4-1 run to take a commanding 2-0 lead heading into the break.

Hambly said his team couldn’t get Minnesota out of system enough throughout the match, and it was a lot to ask of his team to win three straight sets against the No. 2 seeded Gophers. Illinois dropped the pivotal third set after another extended scoring from its opponent sealed the result.

After the match, Hambly said the match represented a microcosm of the Illini’s season: They came up short in tight sets numerous times throughout the season. He praised his team’s emotional investment, but admitted Minnesota was the better team on Friday night.

“I think we were close to being a very good team,” Hambly said of Illinois’ season. “And we never got over the hump and we lost a lot of tight sets.”

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