Illini fall in five sets to Iowa State

Champaign, Ill. -- It had been 18 years since the Illini had played the same team back-to-back days and Saturday's match with Iowa State was much different than Friday's. On Friday, Illinois cruised to a three-set victory in just over an hour an half. On Saturday, the Illini played their first five-set match of the season and came up just short in a 26-28, 25-19, 25-22, 23-25, 15-10 decision in front of another crowd of over 3,000 at Huff Hall. That match lasted two hours and 32 minutes.

On the difference between the two nights, Illini sophomore Liz McMahon said, "I think they were a little more used to our environment. The Stuff Huff match can be a little intimidating."

McMahon, who played exclusively in the front row this weekend, led the Illini in kills with 16 while hitting a respectable .317.

Another difference was found on the other side of the net where Iowa State freshman lefty outside hitter Mackenzie Bigbee had a whale of a night, finishing with 25 kills and hitting .409 on 44 swings, a night after tallying just seven kills.

Bigbee was especially tough in the second set that, tallying nine kills while seeing the Cyclones build an insurmountable 17-7 lead. 

The game and indeed the weekend was a chess match of adjustments on both sides. Illinois head coach Kevin Hambly noted that oftentimes the team that lost the previous set had gained enough momentum to get off on the right foot in the next one.

Case in point was set one, which began much like the previous night with the Illini vaulting to a 20-13 lead, only to see Iowa State battle back to tie it. The Illini used setter Annie Luhrsen on the right side for the set-winning kill. The Cyclones hit .366 in that set and .300 in set two. 

After Iowa State eked out the win in set three, the Illini block turned up the wick in set four. Illinois out-blocked the Cyclones 14-6 for the match, including 6-0 in the set four. Anna Dorn had another strong night both offensively, hitting .421 with 10 kills, and defensively, with a solo block to go along with seven block assists. Senior middle blocker Erin Johnson had eight kills and six blocks while setter Annie Luhrsen added five blocks to go along with a season-high 50 assists.

In the end, though it came down to too many unforced errors for Illinois. The Illini had 13 service errors and 19 hitting errors, 13 of those were unforced. 

"They played a little more consistently all over and I think that were's still figuring stuff out," Luhrsen said. "That's just the nature of the process. At the service line, we're working hard to make the passers move and that means you're going to miss sometimes. Hopefully by the end of the season, we won't be making those errors."

That inconsistency was evident in the fifth set where both teams hit over .600 for the first half of the set, which stood tied at 8-8. After that the Cyclones went on a 7-2 run to close it out. Fittingly, Bigbee closed the deal with a kill.

Illinois takes to the road for the next two weeks, traveling to Cincinnati for the Big Ten/Big East Challenge. The Illini meet the host Bearcats on Friday (6 p.m. CT) and Louisville on Saturday (3:30 p.m.).

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