Illini volleyball splits first weekend of conference play

Another weekend, another batch of positives to build on and negatives to combat for the Illinois volleyball team.

The Illini (7-5, 1-1 Big Ten) were outplayed by Minnesota (11-2, 2-0) on Friday in three sets, losing 25-17, 25-17, 25-23 to the No. 12 Golden Gophers team loaded with talent. On Sunday, Illinois was evenly matched through four sets with Wisconsin before pulling away with a strong fifth set and a positive note on which to end an up-and-down weekend.

On Friday, Illinois ran into a Gophers team that was older and more ready for the intensity of Big Ten play. The Illini defense’s left side struggled to counter the fierce hitting of Gopher outside Katherine Harms, who finished with a game-high 17 kills on her 30 attempts, good for a .400 hitting percentage.

“She’s a strong player,” middle blocker “Anna Dorn”: said of Harms. “She can definitely hit a lot of shots and kind of abused our block (Friday). … I don’t think we took her seriously enough.”

The Gophers outhit the Illini .375-.205 on the night. Despite out-blocking the Gophers nine to 5.5, Illinois head coach Kevin Hambly said it was a lack of deflections at the net that put more pressure on the Illinois back row and led to easy points for Minnesota.

Down 15-19 in the third set of that game, Illinois made a 7-3 run to tie it at 22. Just as it seemed the Illini were accruing momentum, however, the Gophers finished out the set 3-1 and ended the match.

Hambly said the team was playing passively earlier in the game and became more aggressive toward the end of the third set.

“If there’s anything that we can take away from this, it’s that we learned that we have to go out and attack teams and compete together,” Hambly said.

Sunday was a different story for Illinois, facing a relatively untested Wisconsin (13-2, 1-1) team, which had gone 12-1 against a comparatively weak preconference schedule before beating Northwestern on Friday.

The Illini were evenly matched with Wisconsin through the game’s first four sets, as the teams reciprocated each other, going 25-23, 23-25, 25-22, 22-25. Illinois could not get an early lead against the Badgers until the fourth set, before which the earliest Illinois had led was 12-11 in the third set.

“We had started every set slow, and that kind of hurt our momentum, and we were fighting back every single time,” setter Annie Luhrsen said. “In the fifth set, we kind of came out and just attacked them in every aspect of the game — from the service line, from attacking, from every standpoint, from defense, and that helped our attackers especially.”

With Illinois on the verge of victory in the fourth set, it was a late run by Wisconsin that extended the match. The Badgers reeled off five straight points to turn a 22-20 Illini lead into a set victory for the visitors.

The Illini were all business in the fifth set, as Luhrsen spread the ball around and got many attackers involved, which proved too much for Wisconsin to handle. The fifth set was the only one in which the Illini won the first point and gave themselves an early advantage. Luhrsen credited the passing for enabling her to spread her sets around.

“Getting it around 5 feet (away from the net) allows me to be able to go to Lizzie (McMahon) and the middles, and Lizzie and I worked really hard on our connection this week in practice, and I think it showed up (Sunday),” Luhrsen said.

McMahon had a season high of 19 kills on 42 attempts, hitting .333. Middle blockers Erin Johnson and Anna Dorn hit .700 and .478 on 10 and 23 kill attempts, respectively, and outside hitter Jocelynn Birks had a game-high 20 kills on 61 attempts.

_Eliot can be reached at [email protected] and @EliotTweet._