Dec. 4, 2010

Courtesy of Illinois Athletics

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - Through all the adversity that Illinois has been through in 2010, Illinois head coach Kevin Hambly still insisted that the goals the team set at the beginning of the season were still possible. The eighth-seeded Illini got another step closer to those goals with a four-set 25-17, 25-17, 20-25, 25-21 victory over Cincinnati in round two of the NCAA Tournament Saturday night at Huff Hall.

"We've definitely faced our fair share of adversity," said Illinois head coach Kevin Hambly. "When we reflect on this year that's what we'll think about, how resilient this group was and how tough they were. They showed it tonight by the way they responded to some adversity, both losing that set and then a little bit of a run by Cincinnati. I'm proud of them and they work hard at that, it's not like that comes easy. They have to work hard to fight that battle in their head and be tough. They did a good job of it tonight."

The Illini got another good night from Colleen Ward, who had 27 kills on the night, the fourth most by an Illinois player in an NCAA Tournament match as Illinois avenged an earlier loss to the Bearcats. Illinois, who also got 15 kills from junior right side hitter Michelle Bartsch, defeats Cincinnati in this round for the second time in three seasons.

"She was amazing tonight," Haen said of Ward's play. "She really carried our team through the whole match. Every time we were in trouble, we could go to her. They did everything to stop Colleen. Even when they were planning their block on her, it didn't matter. She could put the ball away no matter what."

The Illini will have another rematch in the Sweet 16 as it plays host and ninth-seeded Texas in the Regional Semifinals. Illinois ended Texas' 25-match home court winning streak on Sept. 3 with a 25-23, 25-18, 25-18 victory over the ten No. 2 ranked Longhorns. Top-seeded Florida, a five-set winner over rival Florida State, and 16th-seeded Purdue round out that field in the Austin Regional.

"It's dangerous to look back (at that first match)," Hambly said. "The thing we know is that they are going to be really athletic and really physical. They've gotten a lot better than they were at that time, so hopefully we have as well. I feel like we have too."

Illinois was the aggressor in the first two sets Saturday night, hitting .432 and .353, respectively. Ward had eight kills and hit .500 in setting the tone. The Illini built a 15-7 lead and cruised through the first set. Ward and Bartsch each had four kills in the first 12 Illinois points.

The Illini also tried to slow down the Bearcats strong hitter in Stephanie Niemer and were successful in the first two sets. Niemer had 27 kills in Cincinnati's earlier victory and tallied 21 in a three-set victory over Western Kentucky on Friday night. Niemer had just six kills and hit .138 through the first two sets.

While Ward (58) and Bartsch (48) took the majority of swings, the Illini got great production offensively from everyone. Playing on the biggest stage of her career to date, freshman Jazmine Orozco played free and came up with some big points. The Lakewood, Calif., native had eight kills. They got solid production out of their middles with seven and kills from Johannah Bangert and Erin Johnson, respectively. Orozco also served the key stretch of the second set with an ace as the Illini extended a 16-13 lead to 19-13. Serving specialist Jackie Wolfe served three more late points as Ward and Bartsch took turns posting crosscourt winners.

Niemer is a tough player to completely shut down and the senior came alive in the third set with three kills in the first four points as the Bearcats built a 4-0 lead. Niemer, who finished with 20 kills and 21 digs, had nine kills and hit .421 during the third set. Illinois closed a 13-7 deficit to 19-17 before Cincinnati scored six of the sets' final nine points. While Niemer's offensive presence was the story in building that lead, she teamed on a pair of blocks down the stretch to secure the set.

The fourth set was played at high level by both teams. Niemer and Missy Harpenau each had five kills for Cincinnati who tied the set at 17. The Illini, however, were not to be denied as setter Hillary Haen (56 assists, 15 digs) kept building confidence in setting both Ward and Bartsch, with neither committing a hitting error in the final set. Ward had nine kills and hit .429 and Bartsch added six while hitting .400.

Cincinnati had a slight advantage early in the set, but the Illini defense rose the occasion. Five different Illinois players reached double digits in digs, paced by freshman libero Jennifer Bonilla's 22. Ward added 15, Bartsch 14 and defensive specialist Rachel Feldman had 13. Bonilla served up an ace to put Illinois up 15-10, but the Bearcats came back to tie it at 17. It was anyone's set from there. But Illinois never trailed again and after calling timeout up 22-21, the Illini scored the final three points, two on Bartsch kills to end it.