GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The match had a plethora of storylines. First it had third-seeded Illinois, the lone Big Ten team standing after a host of upsets on Friday, playing for the right to get to San Antonio. The Illini had to do so on the home floor of the Florida Gators and its high-flying athletic bunch. On top of that, it saw the return of senior Colleen Ward to the school where she began her collegiate career. In the end, the All-American had a performance for the ages in helping Illinois secure its third appearance in the national semifinals and first in 23 years. The Illini unleashed some offensive firepower in posting a 25-22, 23-25, 25-14, 25-20 victory against Florida to win the regional and advance to Thursday’s Final Four.
The Illini, who had hit over .300 in six of its previous nine matches, hit an incredible .455, .394 and .514 in the final three sets, respectively, in overpowering the Gators at the net. At the heart of the attack was Ward. The Regional Tournament MVP had 23 kills in 42 swings, hitting .500 for the night in helping the Illini hit .338.
“I’m proud of my team,” Ward said. “I’m excited – this is where we wanted to be in the beginning of the season just awesome that we got there. It was definitely a tough match tonight, but we battled it out.”
Ward was especially potent in the final set, where she had nine kills in nine swings. Fittingly, she finished it off with a swing that went off the Florida block and sailed toward the end line and from there, Illinois players began to celebrate.
“Colleen swung smart and she hit high hands,” Illinois head coach Kevin Hambly said. “I thought (setter) Annie (Luhrsen) did a good job of using her at the right times.”
Ward was one of three Illini named to the seven-person All-Regional Tournament Team, joining senior outside hitter Michelle Bartsch and sophomore libero Jennifer Beltran. Bartsch had 30 kills and 17 digs for the regional, including 12 kills and nine digs vs. Florida. Beltran tied an Illinois NCAA match record with 26 digs in the semifinal vs. Ohio State Friday and added 13 digs vs. Florida. The Gators’ Kelly Murphy and Kristy Jaeckel, Ohio State’s Emily Danks and Michigan’s Alex Hunt were also named to the team.
For Hambly, the difference in the game was simple – his club won the serve-pass battle and hit for a low error. The numbers certainly tell that story. The Illini had just five attack errors in the final three sets combined. Florida, meanwhile had 26 attack errors on the night while hitting .225.
Neither team hit well in the first set. The Illini, however, hit slightly better. Thanks to five first-set Florida blocks, Illinois hit just .068, but Florida hit just .024 with 11 attack errors.
Illinois will take a 31-4 record and a seven-match winning streak into San Antonio. The difference for the Illini in this latest stretch has been winning big points late in sets and the Florida match was no exception.
With the first set tied at 19-19, senior Rachel Feldman served five consecutive points, including one of her two aces on the night to help the Illini pull out that set. After dominating the third set, Illinois needed that competitive toughness again in closing out the Gators in the fourth. With the set tied at 15-15, the Illini scored 10 of the final 15 points. Five different Illinois players had kills in that stretch.
“Florida was tough to stop, one of the best offensive teams we’ve faced,” Hambly said. “They presented a lot of challenges for us. I thought our girls made a lot of adjustments and did a better job of controlling things on defense at times; enough to give us a chance to win.”
In set two, Florida rode the arm of lefty Jaeckel. The senior had 19 kills in her final collegiate match, including nine kills in 13 swings in helping Florida tie the match going into intermission.
“The locker room was pretty calm after that set,” Hambly said. “We decided we needed to work harder on our passing and work harder on defense and give ourselves a chance. We came out and changed that in the final two sets.”
Ward and the Illini were nearly as dominating in that set. Illinois jumped to leads of 12-5, 17-7 and 20-9. Ward had nine kills in 11 attacks in helping the Illini hit .455 and side out at 68 percent.
It may be cliché, but every Illini had a hand in the victory. Anna Dorn hit .600 with six kills and was in on five blocks. Illinois put Liz McMahon along with Dorn opposite Jaeckel for the last two sets and that was effective. McMahon had seven kills and five blocks. Junior middle blocker Erin Johnson was nearly unstoppable in hitting behind the setter, finishing with nine kills in 16 attacks without an error (.562). Luhrsen also credited the passing that was only aced three times in the four sets and posted three players in with double-digits in digs, including Feldman (11) and Ward (11), who posted her 23rd career double-double.