Champaign, Ill. (UI Release) – It was a season of ups and downs, as the Fighting Illini took on the most difficult schedule in the nation, but with the help of the greatest fan base the program has ever seen, Illinois stormed back from a 9-12 record on Oct. 30 to finish the regular season on a 7-2 run and advance to the NCAA Regional (round of 16) for the fifth time in the past six seasons.
Fresh off an upset of undefeated fourth-seed Missouri, No. 19 Purdue came into State Farm Center ready to play. The Boilermakers found themselves in a 24-21 hole in the first set, but stormed back to take the frame 28-26 and carried the momentum through the rest of the match to knock off 13th-seeded Illinois on its home court, 3-0 (28-26, 25-20, 25-19). Purdue (23-11) advances to face yet another Big Ten team, Wisconsin (26-9), on Saturday night with the winner earning a trip to Seattle for the Final Four. With the loss, Illinois’ 2013 season comes to an end with a final record of 18-15.
“Congratulations to Purdue,” said Head Coach Kevin Hambly. “I thought they played tough, they executed. Especially the first set, we had a great opportunity to go up one, but I thought that they made some plays at the end, dug a couple balls, and they took advantage of it. I think for us the whole time I felt like we never got in a great rhythm in anything really, offensively and defensively.
“It was probably a byproduct of a lot of them never having been in this situation before and you could tell that Purdue did, they were ready for a Sweet Sixteen match and it didn’t seem like we were. I’ve been through this before and it’s nice to get [that] for this group; it’s not nice for Jennifer [Beltran], because she’s been a pleasure to coach, and Courtney Abrahamovich. Our two seniors have been a pleasure to coach and great ambassadors for Illinois and great players and special to me, but it’s great to get back here for the kids that move on from here and hopefully they will feel more comfortable the next time they’re in that moment.”
One of the primary highlights of the 2013 season has been the unending support of the Illini Faithful. Over 16 home matches this season, Illinois brought in a total of 49,871 fans and posted a new program record with an average of 3,117 per match. The last match at State Farm Center, a 3-0 sweep of Iowa to open Big Ten play on Sept. 27, brought in the largest volleyball-only crowd ever with 7,061, and tonight’s crowd was well over the Huff Hall capacity as well, as 4,631 fans braved the blizzard outside to take in a Big Ten battle.
“I thought [the atmosphere] was incredible, especially for the first set when we were up,” said Hambly. “It’s too bad we couldn’t take advantage of it, because we couldn’t sustain any kind of run to get a little bit of help. We could have used some help tonight, but we didn’t earn it. We needed to do some positive things for them to celebrate, but I thought that for a big, vast arena it felt like a great place to play volleyball.”
Sophomore Jocelynn Birks kicked things off by recording her 1,000th career kill early in the first set, finishing the night with a match-high 12 kills and a team-high nine digs to post her second-consecutive 500-kill season. She is one of just three Illini ever to record more than one 500-kill season, joining Laura DeBruler (2007, ’08, ’09) and Colleen Ward (2010, ’11). Additionally, Birks finished the season with 1,584 attempts, which ranks fourth all-time at Illinois.
Junior Liz McMahon put up 10 kills and Morganne Criswell added an additional eight. Sophomore Alexis Viliunas tabbed 24 assists to go along with eight digs, and Jennifer Beltran also put up eight. The senior libero finished her impressive career as the all-time digs leader at Illinois and ranked second in Big Ten history with a total of 2,220 digs over four seasons.
Junior Ali Stark tallied seven digs and two of the team’s five aces, while freshman Danielle Davis put up six digs. Serving specialist Courtney Abrahamovich finished out her campaign with an ace on the night, totaling 21 for her career to go along with 69 digs.
Illinois was out-blocked 11.0-4.5 by the Boilermakers, but junior Anna Dorn was up on all but one, to finish her third full season with 399 career blocks, ranking 12th on the Illinois charts.
Purdue challenged the Illinois defense by spreading the ball around evenly to nearly every attacker, with five Boilermakers recording between six and nine kills, yet no one reached double digits. Upperclassmen Val Nichol, Kierra Jones and Catherine Rebarchack each had nine kills, Sam Epenesa had seven and Annie Drews had six. The Boilermakers had a potent blocking unit, led by Faye Adelaja (6) and Drews (5).
For the second time this season, Nichol was one stat shy of a triple-double against Illinois, totaling 17 assists and 11 digs to go along with her nine kills; Nichol had 14 kills, 23 assists and nine digs in the 4-set win over Illinois in West Lafayette. Fellow setter Rachel Davis tallied 18 assists, and libero Carly Cramer added seven assists to go with a match-high 15 digs. Senior defensive specialist Hillary Fox put up 11 digs to help the back line out-dig the Illini, 54-43.
"I thought the key tonight was a college volleyball team taking the things that they had worked on all week long, the adjustments that we needed to make and some of the things that we had to do to defend and score and then, execute it in a nearly flawless manner,” said Purdue Head Coach Dave Shondell. “It was a great performance by our volleyball team. Illinois is a great team, super well-coached. I don’t know if there is a better coach in the country than Kevin Hambly and, not to mention, a first-class guy. They’re big and physical, and we felt like there were some things we had to do, but telling a team ‘this is what we have to do’ and going out and doing it are two totally different things. We did it tonight, and we’re thrilled to be advancing in this tournament."
It was a bit of déjà vu to Oct. 11 in the first set, as the Fighting Illini and Boilermakers found themselves in yet another gritty battle. Purdue took an early 4-1 lead, but the Illini pushed back 7-6, and the next two-point lead wasn’t until it was 21-19 Illinois. A service ace by Stark made it Illinois set point, 24-21, but Purdue won four straight to erase the deficit and reach a 25-24 set point. A kill and an ace by Birks put Illinois back ahead, but back-to-back kills by Drews finally sealed the deal, as Purdue took the first set, 28-26.
Purdue picked up momentum in the second set, cruising to a 12-6 lead on a block by Adelaja and Drews. The Illini did not give up hope, powering back to tie the score at 16, but a service ace by Neill helped the Boilermakers reclaim the lead, 19-16, and Purdue drove it home with a 25-20 win in set two.
The third set was even for the vast majority, but after a kill by Criswell pulled Illinois within one, 18-17, Hillary Fox served out a 6-0 run to reach match point and Epenesa put the icing on the cake, punching Purdue’s ticket to the Elite Eight with a 25-19 win in the third set.
“It hasn’t really sunk in yet, but I’m definitely not selfish so I said something to the team to learn for next year and know that next year starts right now,” Beltran said following her final match for the Orange and Blue. “This one is done and it’s on to the next one so I just want them to hopefully learn from this and take it to next year and make another run at it because they’ve got another shot.”
“I wasn’t expecting it to end like this, but it did so I’ll just do what I can do to be there for them and whatever I can do.”
“Our expectation is to go further with the program, we’ve set that [expectation] and Jennifer [Beltran] had a lot to do with that,” said Hambly. “It’s nice to get in this match, because it takes a while to get used to it. I don’t know how else to describe it other than being in the big moment and being in a big match in a different stage. It takes a couple matches to get used to that and for me it was exciting to get to this match because this is where I feel we should be every year. We should at least be in the Sweet Sixteen and then from there you have to see if you can make a run and lot of that depends on matchups.
“So I’m not satisfied with this season, but I’m also not super disappointed about where we’re at. To get back to this match was good. I was disappointed with how we played tonight, because I think we could have played better, but I’m not disappointed in this season. We took on a tough schedule and I don’t know who’s played a tougher schedule in several years, and they stood up to it, and they fought and I’m really proud of what they were able to accomplish.”