Dec. 3, 2010

Courtesy of Illinois Athletics

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - "This is a new season and we're 1-0," summed up Illinois sophomore middle blocker Erin Johnson after helping eighth-seeded and 14th-ranked Illinois to a straight sets 25-19, 25-19, 25-19 victory over Austin Peay in round one of the NCAA Tournament. Illinois got 17 kills from junior All-Big Ten performer Colleen Ward in advancing to meet 21st-ranked Cincinnati in round two.

Facing Cincinnati is nothing new for the Illini who will play the Bearcats for the fourth time in three years. Illinois defeated Cincinnati in straight sets in the same round of the 2008 NCAA Tournament at Huff Hall and topped the Bearcats in three in the opening match of the 2009 State Farm Illini Classic. Cincinnati, however, handed Illinois its second loss of the 2010 season in five sets on Sept. 17 at the Big Ten/Big East Challenge.

"We have to win the serve-pass battle," Hambly said when asked about the keys to avenging the earlier defeat to Cincinnati. "Last time we missed 18 serves and they aced us 10 times, which was the biggest key in the match. That's 28 points that we gave them, that's a whole set. We need to get them out of system and make it easier for us to play defense."

Offensively that match in September was a battle between Ward and likely All-American Stephanie Niemer of Cincinnati. If Friday's results are any indication, that will be the match-up to watch for on Saturday night. Ward took 45 swings with just two hitting errors, good for a .333 attack percentage Friday vs. Austin Peay. Niemer, meanwhile, had 21 kills and hit a whopping .513 as Cincinnati won an offensive-minded battle with Western Kentucky 25-22, 28-26, 25-12. Cincinnati and Western Kentucky hit .449 and .306, respectively, for the match, including .704 and .633, respectively, in the opening set.

The Illinois victory, which moved the Illini to 23-8 on the season and 21-3 all-time at home in NCAA tournament play, was much more difficult than the score would indicate. The match had 16 ties and nine lead-changes, but each set had its turning point and each set, ironically, ended in an ace.

"I really enjoy watching Austin Peay play," Hambly said. "I just think that they played hard. They play great defense and were really scrappy. They do a lot of smart things and it was not fun to play against, but I enjoyed watching them play. Tonight the key was the serve-pass battle, which it always is. They came in as one of the best serving teams in the country, and we did a nice job of serving tonight and really got them out of system and slowed their offense down."

Ward set the table out of the box, with seven kills in 19 attacks in set one as the Illini overcame an early 8-7 deficit. She accounted for the last five points of the set, four on kills and the set-ender on an ace.

Austin Peay led 11-10 in the second set before the Illini pushed forward and was in control of the outset of set three, bursting to an 8-4 lead, but the Illini had four of its nine blocks in the third set to pull in front 18-14. Kayla Grantham served three straight Austin Peay points to tie it at 18-18, but the Illini's Jackie Wolfe returned the favor as Illinois went back in front 22-18. Illini senior Johannah Bangert teamed on three blocks down stretch, and Hillary Haen served an ace for the match clincher. Bangert had seven block assists, which bring her to within nine of the all-time Big Ten career mark in that category, entering Saturday's match with 603.

Hambly has been looking for consistency and a reduction of hitting errors, which was an issue for Illinois at the end of the regular season. The Illini passed the test with just 10 unforced errors in three sets while hitting .279, .293 and .278 in sets 1-3 respectively, good for a .283 percentage for the match.

"Last weekend we were just making some poor decisions of when to attack and when to go for it and when not to go for it," Hambly said. "Tonight we kind of over compensated early, where we were not going forward when we should and just try to keep the ball in play and then we started going. Colleen really started going for some balls and attacking hard when she was in rhythm. She got in a nice rhythm and then Erin was really good attacking behind the setter."

Michelle Bartsch joined Ward in double-digit kills with 10. Johnson had nine kills while hitting .692. Haen paced Illinois in assists with 39, moving into 10th on the Illinois single-season assist list at 1,362. Freshman Jennifer Bonilla added to her season school-record digs total, now with 582 after posting 17 on the night.

"We were working on making good decisions and that showed in the match as well," Johnson said.

Austin Peay, which was making its first NCAA appearance, was led by Ilyanna Hernandez with 10 kills and eight digs.

"This was an incredible opportunity for our girls to be a part of Austin Peay's first NCAA appearance and what a better place to play then against a team like Illinois," Austin Peay head coach Haley Janicek. "Our girls showed a lot of tenacity out there, and they fought hard against a really good team. Illinois just outplayed us at certain times in the match, but all season long we talked about our girls getting better up until the very last game. They did that again and got better today."

Illinois will be looking for its 12th Sweet 16 appearance when it faces Cincinnati (30-5) Saturday night. The winner of the match punches its ticket to the Regional in Austin, Texas.