Illinois volleyball loses to PSU, tops OSU in weekend split

The Illinois volleyball team gained some valuable experience about finishing matches this weekend.

The Illini split another conference weekend, their fourth in a row, losing to No. 4 Penn State in a five sets before beating No. 17 Ohio State in four.

Illinois had trouble putting away Penn State on Friday, eventually losing the match (9-25, 25-22, 24-26, 25-15, 15-12) after some costly errors. The Illini bounced back Sunday, though, executing well against the Buckeyes and eventually beating them in three straight sets after dropping the first.

“We can play really good volleyball,” head coach Kevin Hambly said after the Penn State match. “We can compete with anybody, we just have to execute at the end.”

The Illini had three service errors on 10 serves in the fifth set against the Nittany Lions, a fact that ultimately proved too much for Illinois to overcome.

“It was execution, and we missed serves at really key points,” junior outside hitter Morganne Criswell said. “I think that really killed our momentum and we kinda died after that.” 

The lack of execution near the end of the match was something Hambly said the team still needs to work on to go from good to great.

“Last year we didn’t have a chance in these matches, last year we struggled to play good volleyball,” Hambly said. “I think we can play really good volleyball right now, we just need to do it from 20 on in every set. Teams in the past that have won a lot of matches, they execute at the end of games. They know it, it’s addressed, we’re working on it and now we gotta get past it.”

The Illini executed well Sunday afternoon, beating the Buckeyes (15-25, 25-15, 25-22, 25-20) despite feeling a bit of an emotional hangover from the Penn State match.

“I think we were still a little caught up on Friday a little bit,” junior outside hitter Liz McMahon said, “We didn’t have clear heads like we needed to, but we made the adjustments, so I guess that’s all that matters now.”

Illinois was initially caught off-guard by Ohio State’s numerous different offensive setups but eventually settled in and knocked off the Buckeyes.

“We talked a lot about them having what we call a Chinese fire drill type of offense,” redshirt freshman middle blocker Maddie Mayers said. “A lot of everything is everywhere. So this week in practice we worked a lot on just being disciplined and reading the setter and just being ready for whatever’s coming toward you.”

As both the game and the weekend went on, the Illini improved both in the serve-receive battle and overall, winning sets they may have let slip away earlier in the season.

“I thought we made a big change from the first (set) in so many aspects,” McMahon said. “Our serve-pass game picked up a lot. They were more prepared than us in the first set, and then from there on out I thought we attacked them really well.”

A trio of outside hitters led the Illini on the weekend. Criswell finished both matches with a combined 36 kills while McMahon added 30 kills. Sophomore Jocelynn Birks had 27 kills and 24 digs while paired against the toughest offensive players from both Penn State and Ohio State.

“I thought Mo (Morganne Criswell), when she was aggressive, was great,” Hambly said. “She was going for it, she attacked and she went for it, and when she’s in that mode and she’s going for it she can score points, and we need that Morganne.”

McMahon said the team has been working on sticking to the game plan in late match scenarios in order to continue to improve as the season progresses. She added that the team is well aware it can’t keep splitting weekends at this point in the season, but that she is also taking pride in how well the team is playing despite the win-loss record.

“We need wins,” McMahon said. “It’s not like we’re trying to split every weekend, we’re trying to get a sweep. We’re playing well, so we’re happy with that, we’re just trying to get wins.”

Nicholas can be reached at [email protected] and @IlliniSportsGuy.