Illinois set the tone early.
Recording five blocks in the first six points of the match, the Illini were going to use their size and physicality to their advantage against Marquette in the NCAA second round Saturday night at Huff Hall.
Although Marquette recovered to score from the pins in the second and third sets, Illinois made big plays down the stretch in those sets to down the Golden Eagles 25-13, 25-23, 25-22. The Illini will take a 29-4 record into the regional semifinals where they’ll meet Ohio State.
The Illini reach that round for the fourth consecutive year and the 13th time in school history. Illinois hopes to make it a lucky 13th after having their run halted at that round the last three years. The Illini play at 5 p.m. ET Friday in Gainesville, Fla., against the Buckeyes, a team the Illini beat both in Columbus and Champaign this season. This will mark the third meeting between the teams in NCAA Tournament play with Illinois winning both, in the 1989 Regional Semifinal at Nebraska and the 1992 first round at Huff Hall.
On playing Ohio State for a third time this season, Illini head coach Kevin Hambly said, “We will have plenty of stuff to look at and the adjustments that they have made. The important thing is that we can’t assume that it is going to be the same team. I expect them to do something different, and we need to approach it like we have never played them before.”
A night after out-blocking Central Michigan 12-2 in the first round, the Illini had a 13.5-3 advantage in blocks against Marquette. Both middle blockers, Erin Johnson (six blocks) and Anna Dorn (five blocks) were also strong on the offensive end. Johnson hit .500 with six kills while Dorn hit .375 with four kills.
“They’re pretty good at defending and blocking” Marquette head coach Bond Shymansky said. “It was funny to me that the first five of six points were blocks. I thought we better change something quick or they’re going to end up with 25 blocks in the first set, and we’ll just go home.”
“They had a complicated system and we did a nice job of preparing for them in practice, and executed very well,” Hambly said. “You want to get teams outside of their comfort zone, and I felt that we did that.”
Illinois started and ended strong, committing just three attack errors while hitting .370 in the opening set and just one attack error while hitting .364 in the third set.
Senior Michelle Bartsch (nine kills) started Saturday’s match the way she ended it on Friday. After amassing seven kills in nine attacks to help Illinois pull away from CMU, she led the team with five kills in eight attacks in helping the Illini jump to leads of 10-5 and 18-8 in the first set vs. Marquette. Bartsch’s service rotation has been one of the strongest for Illinois this year and it proved to again in a 5-0 run early in the set, which ended in an ace.
Marquette found its rhythm at times in the second set as the Illini dipped to six attack errors in the frame. The set had 12 ties and two lead changes. The Eagles were able to get the slide working with Danielle Carlson, who hit .571 with four kills in the set.
Illinois setter Annie Luhrsen (31 assists, three blocks, seven digs), meanwhile, was able to set middle to Johnson, who had four kills in four attacks in the set while tallying three kills for herself. With the set tied at 23-23, Johnson and Collen Ward came up big with back-to-back kills to claim the set for the Illini.
“Our team does really well when we get the middles and the outsides going early,” Luhrsen said. “They were ready and we got it to them. Ward and Bartsch are always reliable, so it’s good to have them on the outside. We just had everyone going.”
While Carlson continued to spray the ball for kills on the Marquette side (six to be exact), Bartsch reemerged offensively and so did the Illinois’ block in set three. Both were instrumental in a 6-2 run that gave Illinois a 21-17 lead and the crowd of 2,075 could sense a trip to Gainesville was imminent.
Ward was efficient, pacing Illinois with 10 kills and hitting .360. Sophomore Jennifer Beltran (13 digs) and Bartsch helped stabilize a strong passing night.
For Marquette, it ended the best season in school history that resulted in a 24-11 record and the program’s first NCAA tournament appearance.
“Overall, it was a proud moment for us,” Shymansky said. “It’s a hard moment to take losing, but the season is done now, and we’ve really accomplished something special this year. We’re really proud of our group, and I know they’re really proud of how far we’ve come.
Illinois, on the other hand will be looking for its third national semifinal appearance and the first trip to the quarterfinals since 1992. No doubt, Hambly and the rest of the Illini will be asked about getting past the round of 16. In that realm, Hambly likes the approach his team is taking.
“Our team has a great mentality, and they just want to focus on what’s next,” Hambly said. “They have really taken to that and I could see that in how calm they were in the big moments tonight. We just need to focus on competitive toughness. We are going to do our best and whatever comes will come.”