Oct. 29, 2010

Courtesy of Illinois Athletics

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - Friday's match between first-place Illinois and second-place Michigan lived up to the billing as the teams took turns heating up the floor at Huff Hall. In the end, junior Michelle Bartsch had 21 kills and seven big blocks as the sixth-ranked Illini held off No. 15 Michigan in five sets (25-11, 16-25, 25-20, 24-26, 15-12) to push to a two-match lead over both the Wolverines and Penn State for first place in the Big Ten with nine matches to go.

The victory also avenges the only conference loss for the Illini, who move to 10-1 in the league and 18-3 overall. Michigan falls to 19-4 and 8-3 in the league. Illinois also wins at home for the 19th straight time, the sixth-best active streak in the country and three off the best ever since moving to Huff.

Several times it looked as if Illinois was in control of the match, only to see Michigan and Alex Hunt come storming back. Illinois won the opening set 25-11 by siding out at 100 percent (12-12), then trailed only once in taking set three. The Illini built a 24-21 lead in set four only to see Michigan come back to take that set by scoring the final five points. Then in the fifth, Illinois built a 10-5 lead, saw the Wolverines cut the margin to 13-11 before winning it 15-12.

Bartsch and Hunt took turns in helping shift the momentum their team's way. Hunt took a match-high 72 swings and tallied 20 kills. Bartsch had one better with 21 kills, including the match clinching one high off the Michigan block, on 69 swings.

The difference in the match came on defense where Bartsch and senior Johannah Bangert had the answer on the block with Bartsch tallying seven block assists and Bangert 10, having a great deal to do with the lefty Hunt's 14 attack errors. For the match, the Illini out-blocked the Wolverines 14-5.

Illinois held Michigan All-American Lexi Zimmerman, who had 13 kills in the Wolverine win in Ann Arbor, to just three kills and a negative hitting percentage. That assignment went largely to freshman libero Jennifer Bonilla, who had 28 digs on the night.

"Michelle was really big against Hunt," Illinois head coach Kevin Hambly said. "The Bartsch block, I thought, is what changed the whole complexion of the match."

Hambly called the battle a "chess match" between he two teams with all the competitors playing a major role. For Michigan, Claire McElheny (15 kills, .355) and Jennifer Cross (11 kills) took turns frustrating the Illinois defense. For Illinois, Colleen Ward tallied 11 kills, while Jazmine Orozco had four of her six kills in the fourth set. Bangert added seven kills and hit .429.

What has been telling about Illinois' run through the first 11 matches of the Big Ten is just how competitive they have been. The Illini have won only two in straight sets, while five now have gone five sets. Illinois lost a pair of five-setters in the non-conference, but is a perfect 5-0 during Big Ten play.

In set one, the Illini dominated the serve/pass game with Bonilla serving six of the Illini's points and Jackie Wolfe serving an ace. Set two was just the opposite as Michigan sided out at 82 percent, while Illinois did so at just 54 percent. Although the Illinois block got their hands on several of Hunt's swings, she was able to use to the block to collect seven kills in the frame and Michigan never trailed.

"The energy level was really high that first set," Bonilla said. "I think that is what gave us momentum and pushed us a lot. With that energy, it brought out the effort, and we gave a lot of that."

Illinois hit at least .290 while committing just a combined five hitting errors in the three sets it won, but committed six and eight, errors, respectively, in sets two and four, which Michigan prevailed in. Bartsch, who said afterward that just keeping the ball in play was key, had six kills in the third set, and Illinois never trailed in building a 15-9 lead. Still Michigan closed to within 22-20 before Bartsch came through with a kill and Erin Johnson and Orozco blocked McElheny at set point.

Michigan vaulted to leads of 9-2 and 14-9 in looking as if the Wolverines were going to easily force a fifth set. That is until first Hillary Haen, who had a career-best 20 digs to go along 36 assists, then Courtney Abrahamovich put the pressure on Michigan with aggressive serves as Illinois went on a 7-1 run to amazingly go in front 16-15.

Later in the set when Bartsch and Bangert came through with back-to-back stuff blocks on Hunt, Illinois had a pair of match points at 24-21, but Jennifer Cross served the final four points for Michigan and Hunt put an exclamation point on the set with a kill off the block.

Illinois scored the first four points of set five and built a 10-5 cushion, but again Michigan battle backed with Cross and Lexi Erwin taking turns with kills. The lead reached a precarious 12-10, but Bartsch came through a pair of kills off the Michigan block to finally end it.

Despite having a two-match cushion in the league, Hambly isn't breathing any easier. "We have a lot matches left," he said. "We have a lot of things we can improve on, but to our players' credit they are playing hard and finding a way to win."

Illinois hosts Michigan State, a team that took the Illini to five earlier this year, at 7 pm Saturday night.