No. 1 Illini knocks off Penn State
Illini move to 17-0, end PSU’s conference home win streak
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- The match will go down as one of the best regular season contests in Big Ten history. More than 5,200 fans watched the eighth-ranked and four-time defending national champion Penn State Nittany Lions battle No. 1 ranked Illinois at Rec Hall and in the end the visiting Illini came away with an epic five-set victory 21-25, 25-21, 23-25, 25-21, 15-12. The victory pushes the Illinois overall record to 17-0, keeps the Illini tied with Nebraska for first place in the Big Ten at 6-0 and ends Penn State’s 68-match Big Ten home winning streak. The Lions fall to 11-5, 4-2 in the league.
The victory also marked just the second victory by the Illini at Penn State in 22 tries with the other win coming in 1995. A pair of freshmen came up huge for Illinois, especially at the end of the match. Liz McMahon had 14 kills and six block assists while hitting .270. Penn State, who had the big block going in the taking the first set, saw that fortune turn late in the match when freshman Anna Dorn tied an Illinois record with 13 block assists, four of which came in the final set.
“It was just an epic battle,” head coach Kevin Hambly said. “I thought Liz in that second set took over and Anna Dorn took over the match blocking late, but it really took a lot of players who made big plays throughout the match.”
Penn State sophomore Ariel Scott had 27 kills in 74 swings to pace Penn State. Colleen Ward paced the Illini with 15 kills in 68 swings to go along with 17 digs and four blocks. The match itself took nearly three hours, lasting 2:57.
Both teams took turns with big runs and the fifth set was no exception. The Illini jumped in front 4-1 only see to Penn State go back in front 7-5. The Illini got a kill by Dorn, two from McMahon and a block assist from the young guns to go back in front 9-7. Penn State had hits ninth team ace of the match to tie it 11, but the Illini block, which played havoc with the Nittany Lions’ offense, forced three PSU attack errors as the match ended.
Illinois out-blocked Penn State 17-12.5, finally slowing down a strong match from Scott. The Illini made some incredible scrambling plays in the back row. Michelle Bartsch paced five Illini with double-figure digs with 25.
“We finally were able to figure her out,” Hambly said. “She’s a special talent. I’m looking forward to seeing how both teams progress throughout the year. It’s a good benchmark to see where we are at as a program.”
Setter Micha Hancock had seven of Penn State’s nine aces and Penn State led in kills 68-55. Middle blocker Erin Johnson had a big night with 11 kills and four blocks to go along with a .417 attack percentage.
Not only Dorn, but also Johnson played a big role in bringing the Illini back in set four. Johnson was able to score on some back sets and finished the night hitting .417 with 11 kills and four blocks. Trailing 2-1 in the match, the Illini fell behind 12-7 and 17-14 in the fourth set, but Illinois went on an 8-1 run, thanks in large part to the serving of setter Annie Luhrsen (44 assists, 15 digs).
Penn State used the big block in the opening set, with 5.5 team blocks. The Illini countered with four. The Lions controlled most of the set with Illinois’ only lead at 4-3. Penn State built a 17-11 lead before the Illini were able to chip away to tie the set at 20-20. A pair of service aces by setter Micha Hancock and a big swing by Nia Grant gave PSU back the advantage at 23-20. The Lions won the serve/pass game as the Illini sided out at just 56 percent. McMahon and Bartsch each had three kills in the first set with Johnson in on three of Illinois’ four blocks.
“Penn State does a great job of exposing your weaknesses so you have to maximize your strengths,” Hambly said.
Illinois led from start to finish in the second set, taking big leads of 6-1, 13-8, 18-11 and 24-15. The Illini had just two unforced errors in the set. Much like Friday night, Ward took off in that set. She had eight kills and took 23 swings in that set. Besides Ward, McMahon was big early with three of the first seven kills. The Lions sided out at just 51 percent, as the Illini were able to dig out the first Lion attack. Penn State fought off six set points thanks again to the aggressive serve of Hancock, before McMahon finished it off with a set from the right side.
The Lions were the aggressors in the third set as Hancock fired bullets from the setting line, but the Illini buckled down midway through the fourth.