Sept. 25, 2010

Champaign, Ill. - Sell out Huff Hall for the first time since 1992 - check. End No. 2 Penn State's 65-match Big Ten winning streak - check. Before a standing room only crowd of 4,141, No. 9 Illinois reached both of its goals for Friday in its promotion titled "History at Huff." The crowd got even more, though, an epic five-set back-and-forth chess match that was a strong display of high level volleyball from both teams. In the end, the Illini prevailed 17-25, 25-14, 25-19, 14-25, 17-15. Illinois head coach Kevin Hambly hopes that it will be just one step in a process to fulfill the team's ultimate goals, which will be evaluated in late November and December.

The match had many storylines, one of which was the anticipated return of senior All-American Laura DeBruler from a two-week absence with mononucleosis. DeBruler had to be rested some in the match and might not have had her best night statistically, but she came through in the deciding fifth set with four kills in five swings, including two late in the deuce game, and five digs. For the match, DeBruler tallied 11 kills and 14 digs.

"I thought it was gutsy," Hambly said of DeBruler's performance. "Laura struggled through the match but when we needed her she came up big. She had two big kills at the end of that match that gave us a chance to win."

The script couldn't have been laid out any better for Illinois (9-2, 1-0 in the Big Ten), who defeated Penn State (10-2, 0-1) for just the seventh time in 41 tries and the first since 2003. Besides having to overcome some tight play in the first set, the Illini had to fight off match point from Penn State, who led 14-13 in the fifth set. Junior Colleen Ward, who led the Illini with 16 kills on the night, put away a kill to tie the match following a long rally that had fans at the edge of their seats. DeBruler saved her strength for the end, tooling the block at 15-14 and after Penn State tied it, sending an emphatic kill through the block to give the Illini a 16-15 lead. Proving it was a total team effort, Jackie Wolfe served aggressive and eventually forced PSU to miss hit and the Illini took the match.

"We know we are a good enough team to compete with Penn State and any team in the country," said senior setter Hillary Haen, who tallied 54 assists and 10 digs. "But it takes giving it everything we have and I am most proud of our effort."

Although the match had its share of offense, it featured many long rallies as players like Illinois freshman Jennifer Bonilla (19 digs) and Penn State's Alyssa D'Errico (26) took turns digging out impossible balls. Besides its resiliency, Illinois used its middles effectively. Senior Johannah Bangert had 11 kills and nine blocks while hitting .611. Sophomore Erin Johnson added nine kills while hitting .471.

"It was basically how we expected it -- a battle all night," Bangert said. "We were going back and forth, and it shows what great teams both of us are this year. It feels pretty awesome right now."

"I thought our middles played extremely well," Hambly said. "Erin Johnson and Johannah Bangert did an incredible job both creating opportunities with the block, but also especially with attacking."

As promised, however, the difference in the match was the serve-pass game. Penn State never trailed in the first set while siding out an astounding 88 percent. All-American Blair Brown set the tone early for the Lions with five of her 16 kills in the first set and Penn State got a finger on nearly every Illinois attack. The Illini had just nine kills in the opening set, hit .051 and saw Penn State post five blocks.

"It was not as much about rallying as it was about calming down," Hambly said. "We were just so tense and we needed to calm down and start playing our game."

Sets two and three couldn't have been more polar opposites from the first. Illinois trailed just once in each set and served extremely tough. At the heart of the serve was junior Michelle Bartsch, who not only served an ace, but five straight points as Illinois pushed to a 9-3 third-set advantage. And the Illinois block was as strong as it has been all season with six blocks in the second set, including three straight late in that set. Penn State sided out at just 40 and 54 percent, respectively, as Illinois took the middle two sets.

Penn State's athleticism took center stage in the fourth set. All-Americans Arielle Wilson (17 kills, 7 blocks) and Blair Brown (16 kills, 5 blocks) demonstrated why Penn State has won the Big Ten seven straight times. Penn State exploded to leads of 13-8 and 18-11 in cruising to a 25-14 victory. Penn State hit .367 for the set and limited Illinois to an .067 clip.

Illinois was strong out of the box in the fifth set, jumping to a 3-0 lead off the serve of DeBruler, but Penn State chipped away and eventually took leads of 11-9 and 13-11. Ward had a pair of kills to tie the match and force a Penn State timeout, but when Wilson found the floor on the other side of the net, it appeared that the three-time defending national champion might escape Huff with the victory.

Despite the memorable event Friday, the nature of the Big Ten is back to work on Saturday with Ohio State, a five-set winner Friday at Wisconsin, coming to town. Illinois is looking for its first conference title since 1992, but a long road lies ahead.

"We have Ohio State tomorrow night and it is a really important match for us," Hambly said. "Because if we don't take care of business tomorrow, this doesn't mean anything. It is just a Friday night in the Big Ten and we have to approach it that way. Ohio State is very good."

But for most of the past decade, the road to the Big Ten title went through Happy Valley, so the Illinois win changes the complexion of the Big Ten race for the moment.