UI
Bartsch

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- For the first time since 1992, Illinois is heading to a regional final. The third-seeded Illini won a fierce battle with fellow Big Ten member Ohio State to win 23-25, 26-24, 25-23, 25-19 and advance to the Saturday night's regional final. The Illini will be looking for its third appearance in the national semifinals and first since 1988.

The Illini (30-4) reach the 30-win mark for the seventh time in school history, but the first since that 1992 season. Illinois also ended a string of three consecutive years in which their season has ended in the round of 16. Illinois won its seventh consecutive match overall and eighth in a row against Ohio State in the series between the two schools.

"It's a whole different feel," senior Michelle Bartsch said of 2011 compared to her first three trips to the round of 16. " It's a different group of girls and I think we're a really tough team. We're going to face a lot of adversity and we know that. We played really well tonight."

Illinois shook off a tough offensive night that saw the Illini commit 21 hitting errors, the most since a Nov. 18 loss at Michigan State. The Illini also lost a first set for the time since a Nov. 19 match against Michigan.

"It wasn't our best match, but I'm proud of the girls for figuring out a way to win," Illinois head coach Kevin Hambly said "That's what it's about. We talk about that a lot; we're not always going to be at our best but we have to be the best we can be on this given night. I felt like they had to fight through some things and figure out a way to win and I'm proud of the effort tonight. I'm proud they persevered."

In the first set, the Buckeyes ran quick sets to both their middles and to the pins in hitting .375. Emily Danks had five of her match-high 20 kills in the set and the Illini failed to post a block.

After that, however, Illinois made defensive adjustments, forcing the Buckeyes to hit .190, .125 and .108, in the last three sets, respectively. It was the relentless play out of the back row that really made the difference. Jennifer Beltran had perhaps her best effort as a collegian with 26 digs, which ties Rachel Feldman for the most by an Illinois player in an NCAA match. The Illini constantly kept rallies alive and forced Ohio State into 25 hitting errors during the last three sets.

"She made some plays that I've been seeing her make all year," Hambly said of Beltran's play. "She really steadied us out. We made some mistakes on blocking and defense, but she erased those mistakes with great plays. I credit her to being extremely tough because I thought she was really struggling tonight in that first set."

Although several players took turns providing the offensive firepower, it was Bartsch who was able to provide powerful swings and smart shots without many errors. The All-American had a team best 18 kills while hitting .362. After three competitive sets, it was Bartsch who helped the Illini finally get separation from Ohio State (21-15) with seven kills in 15 swings (.467) in the fourth set.

Either the second or third sets could have been turning points in favor of the Buckeyes, but Illinois was determined in fighting back. Up 16-11, it looked as if the Illini were on their way to winning that set easily, but Ohio State went on a 10-4 run, which included four consecutive points to take a brief 21-20 lead. However, Illini senior Colleen Ward (15 kills) had three kills and and set-ending ace to help pull the Illini win the second set 26-24.

The third set was again a battle with Ohio State leading 12-10 and the Illini fighting back to take an 18-15 lead. Once again, however, it came down to making plays down the stretch. Tied at 22-22, Feldman (10 digs) served two consecutive points, forcing the Buckeyes out of their system. Erin Johnson provided the clinching blow off a quick set in the middle.

Illinois had out-blocked its first two opponents in the tournament 25.5-5, and although the Illini managed only seven against Ohio State, Johnson (five blocks) was in on some at opportune times.

Danks hit .405 for the match, but the rest of the Buckeyes combined to hit just .128. In the fourth set, Illinois finally was able to extend the lead. With Ohio State leading 15-14, the Illini out-scored the Buckeyes 11-3 the rest of the way. Annie Luhrsen (6 kills, 43 assists) served four consecutive points to give Illinois a commanding 22-17 lead and the Illini fans in the arena sensed victory. Hambly says it was the competitive toughness developed throughout the spring and fall that was the deciding factor.

 

"We talked about needing to play tougher, to be tougher and to define what that is. Toughness is staying in the moment and fighting the distractions. When people think of tough, they think of something physical -- taking a punch, or fighting an ankle sprain. To me, real competitive toughness is when things aren't at your best, and you're being distracted by your performance or getting blocked, and you fight through that and perform and execute well."