Champaign, Ill. (UI Release) – It wasn’t easy, but Illinois battled a strong defensive Arizona State squad to capture a hard-fought 5-set victory in the 2013 home opener. ASU won the first set, but Illinois replied with the next two to go ahead 2-1. The Sun Devils countered in set four, then had the first chance at match point, up 14-12 in the fifth, before Illinois surged back ahead to win the match, 3-2 (22-25, 25-23, 25-17, 18-25, 17-15). The win marked the 100th for Head Coach Kevin Hambly since taking the reins in 2009, as Hambly owns an impressive .724 winning percentage in just over four seasons as Illinois’ head coach. The Illini improve to 4-2 on the year, while Arizona State takes its first loss, dropping to 7-1.
“It was a defensive battle, said Hambly. “It started out higher on both sides, both teams hitting balls out of bounds. After that, I thought it was about defense and blocking. Both teams served tough and I thought we went to war. It was like a really good Big Ten match where it was really defensive-minded and both sides were really physical…I thought it was good preparation for the Big Ten.”
Junior Liz McMahon led the match with a team-season-best 23 kills, including registering the final four kills of the match.
“I thought I had a good matchup. I was swinging over their (5-8) setter so that helped” said McMahon who stands at 6-for-6. “And then, the middles got going so we had a pretty even offense and not a whole lot of pressure on me. I’ve just been working on being patient and I think that helped me out.”
“She was bold and smart with the shots that she hit,” said Hambly. “We don’t win it without her. That swing she took from the right side was gutsiest swing I’ve seen at 14-13, and she went for it; she hit it hard.”
Jocelynn Birks recorded her first double-double of the year and 14th of her career with 16 kills and 13 digs, and setter Alexis Viliunas was the first to clinch a double-double this year with 50 assists and a career-high 18 digs.
In the tough defensive struggle, senior Jennifer Beltran registered 25 digs, her most since doing so against Ohio State on Oct. 5, 2012. Outside hitter Ali Stark also notched double-digit digs, putting up 17. For Arizona State, senior libero Stephanie Preach put up 27 digs and setter Bianca Arellano had a double-double with 40 assists and 20 digs.
With such tough defenses on both sides of the net, neither team hit well, as Illinois narrowly out-hit ASU .155 to .136, including a -.059 clip for the Sun Devils in the third set. Factoring further into attack efficiency was the block, as the two teams combined for 30.5 blocks in the match. The Illini were out-blocked for the first time this year, as Mercedes Binns’ 10 stuffs contributed to the teams’ 17.0. Illinois was not far behind, putting up 13.5, including a team-best seven from freshman Katie Stadick in her Huff Hall debut.
“It was all defense,” said McMahon. “They were all over the place and we were too. We want to be defensive-minded. If the shot isn’t there, we want to get the ball over and defend. What that does to our [hitting] percentage, I don’t really care as long as we’re playing defense hard.”
The Fighting Illini won the first three points of the match, but a 5-1 run by the Sun Devils put Arizona State out in front, 5-4. They maintained the advantage until back-to-back attack errors by Mercedes Binns gave Illinois the lead, 11-9. However, it would not last long, as ASU came right back to win the next four and pull back in front 13-11. Illinois hung with them, driving into a 16-16 tie with the help of a solo block by Maddie Mayers, but the Sun Devils forged right back ahead, 22-18. Three late kills by McMahon, who had a total of six in the set, erased four ASU set points, but Macey Gardner sealed the deal on a 25-22 set win for Arizona State.
Illinois turned the tables in set two, eking out a hard-fought victory to tie the match at 1-1 and end the Sun Devils’ season-opening winning streak of 22 sets. ASU was on top first, 6-3, but Illinois tied it at eight with a service ace by McMahon then took an 11-10 lead on a Beltran ace. The Sun Devils pushed back to go up 17-15, but Illinois won the next three points to go ahead 18-17 on a triple block by Stadick, Stark and Birks. ASU tied the score three more times but never regained the lead, and a service error by Shannan McCready closed it out for Illinois with a 25-23 set win.
The Illini carried their momentum into the third set, cruising to a 14-4 lead with the help of a serving run by Courtney Abrahamovich. Arizona State did not give up, coming back within three, 15-12, but a McMahon kill got the Illini back on track, going ahead 20-14, and two more McMahon kills finished off the set, 25-17.
Arizona State was not deterred after the third set, opening the fourth up 7-2. Illinois closed the gap to 7-6 and later 11-10, but ASU used a 7-1 run to charge ahead 18-11 and the Illini were unable to recover, as the Sun Devils won the fourth 25-18 and forced a fifth set.
Illinois took the reins early in the fifth set, as back-to-back Viliunas-Stadick blocks and two straight aces for Abrahamovich pushed the Illini ahead 7-4. However, ASU came back to tie the score at 10, and a kill by BreElle Bailey made it 12-10 ASU. Another Bailey kill handed the Sun Devils a match point opportunity, but two-straight kills by McMahon tied the score at 14. A block by Arellano and Binns resulted in a third match point for ASU, but McMahon did not back down, slamming kills on the next two plays to make it match point Illinois and an error by Tuioti-Mariner made it official, Illinois in five, 17-15.
“I think it came down to us finding a way to win and not getting too anxious and staying patient” said McMahon. “We got down but that didn’t really phase us. We saw a lot of determination in that fifth set. The last couple swings I took were bold. I like that role; I feel comfortable in that role.”
“Last season we would have found a way to lose that match,” Hambly half-joked. “This year we found a way to win. We’re growing up.”
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