Illini down Big East foes to remain unbeaten

The Illinois volleyball team saw something Saturday night that fans and players may have to start getting used to: a fifth set.

The No. 3 Illini defeated Louisville on Saturday at Huff Hall in a “five-set”: back-and-forth battle, which head coach Kevin Hambly said won’t be uncommon in the Big Ten.

“Ending on nonconference 11-0 is great, I think we’ve been in some tough matches … and we’re ready for some great competition,” Hambly said. “I hope we’re ready for the Big Ten, I think we are.”

This weekend’s Big Ten/Big East Challenge concluded the nonconference season for the undefeated Illini, who also beat Cincinnati on Friday night.

The Louisville match is the third straight Saturday in which Illinois has played five sets. This weekend, though, the Illini were not down two sets as in the previous weeks, but won the first set before alternating sets until taking the fifth, 15-9.

It was also the third tournament in which “Michelle Bartsch”: won MVP this season, previously receiving the honor at the “BYU Nike Invitational”: and the State Farm Illini Classic.

“Honestly, both nights included, I think Liz (McMahon) should have gotten it for sure,” Bartsch said. “(Saturday) she did awesome and really when she was in rhythm taking huge swings. When we needed it most, Liz came through tonight.”

Bartsch’s comments come with statistical reinforcement, as McMahon was one of the key players in Saturday night’s game, recording 20 kills and hitting .576. Hambly said she was the consistent player in a much-needed third set win.

“McMahon credited”: her success to confidence and the relationship she had with setter Annie Luhrsen.

“I give a lot of credit to Annie, getting me one-on-one with the blockers, especially in the beginning of the game,” McMahon said. “We’ve been working all weekend on really connecting.”

Luhrsen struggled in the Louisville match, getting frustrated at some points, though she recorded 49 assists.

Hambly said it was Luhrsen’s first bad game in the last five matches and is still growing throughout the year. He credited her great performance Friday night and her not-so-great one Saturday night.

“She didn’t have her best night, we had to change some things and she had to kind of settle down,” Hambly said. “Tonight she kind of dipped back into some things she has been trying to work out, it’s gonna happen. She’s still figuring out how to run this offense and manage a team.”

Moving forward, Hambly said he still has a list of things to accomplish and weaknesses to fix. However, this nonconference season did answer some questions.

“I feel like the pieces that we weren’t sure about have showed signs, like Lizzy, we weren’t sure when she was going to pick it up and (Anna) Dorn,” Hambly said. “They’ve showed signs of what we need them to be by December, so we’ve just gotta keep working.

“I love the potential of this team and I just think we have so many weapons and we start to steady out and figure each other out … I’m excited to see where this goes.”