Oct. 17, 2009

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - The Illinois volleyball team played its first match in Assembly Hall in 28 years. Despite the hype, the big crowd and the different venue, head coach Kevin Hambly said he and his team's focus was on the task at hand - win a top-ten match-up with No. 6 Minnesota. No. 10 Illinois showed not only that focus, but also that it has reached a new level with a straight sets victory over the Gophers in front of a school-record crowd of 7,632 at Assembly Hall. The victory, Illinois' fifth straight, gives the Illini sole possession of second place in the Big Ten at 6-2 while improving their overall mark to 14-3. Minnesota falls to 14-5, 5-2 in the conference.

"This was a fun event to play in," Hambly said. "It was fun to have the student section around the court and hear the crowd respond. We were entirely focused on the match, though, and in the end it all worked out great."

For a match that figured to be very defensive-oriented, both teams came out with a lot of offensive firepower and had few hitting errors. Balanced scoring figured big in the victory for Illinois. The Illini hit .273 for the match, including .306 in an impressive third-set rally.

The Illini got its usual performance from All-American Laura DeBruler who not only ripped cross-court shots, but also tooled the block when she had to. The junior finished the night with 15 kills, while hitting .314. Setter Hillary Haen was calm under the bright lights of Assembly Hall, finishing the night with 40 assists and nine digs.

DeBruler was especially big in set three, hitting .427 with seven kills as Illinois built a 5-1 lead, extended the advantage to 14-9, and held on to take the set 25-22. DeBruler's deep shot was key for the Illini's 24th point as the Gophers had rallied to pull within 23-21. Senior Kylie McCulley was dominant in that third set as well, hitting .400 with nine kills en route to 14 kills overall.

Truthfully, though, all three outside hitters took turns in leading the way. Right side hitter Michelle Bartsch was on fire in the opening set, belting a .667 percentage with seven kills as Illinois trailed just once at 2-1. Bartsch finished the night with 13 kills while hitting .333.

While Illinois trailed just once combined in sets one and three, Illinois had to dig deep in set two. Minnesota recovered from a shaky first set to jump in front 4-1 thanks to a pair of kills from its big outside gunner Brook Dieter, who led the Gophers with 13 kills on the night. Minnesota hit .241 with Ariana Filho pacing the team with a .320 percentage and 11 kills.

Illinois kept pushing thanks to winning some long rallies. The Illini worked hard in keeping the ball in play, digging attack after attack and serving aggressively. Junior libero Ashley Edinger had 19 digs while DeBruler and Bartsch added 10 digs apiece. Although the Illini had just three aces for the match, they had just four service errors while keeping the Gophers out of system for much of the night. Minnesota, by contrast, had no aces compared to 10 service errors.

"Although both teams hit for a high percentage, we dug a lot of balls," said Hambly. "The level of play was exactly what we were expecting from two top-10 teams. We had few hitting errors and a lot of good plays."

"Setting aggressively really took their middles out of it," DeBruler added.

The second set was a side out affair, which included 20 ties and seven lead changes. Minnesota's 13-11 lead was the biggest by either team in the set from 5-5 on. The Gophers led 22-21, but could never get that all-important two-point advantage. Bartsch's big swing gave the Illini a chance to serve for the match. The teams combined for three straight service errors before a big block from Bartsch and Haen capped a wild middle set.

Illinois takes a rare Saturday off before traveling to Wisconsin and Iowa next weekend to cap off the first half of the Big Ten season.