LINCOLN, Neb. – For a moment, it looked like Illinois could do it. Go into the home of the No. 1 team in the nation and force a fifth set, maybe even win.
Everything seemed to click. The blockers got up. Spikes found their spot. It was never going to be an easy one against the Nebraska Cornhuskers, and Illinois needed to be at their best.
An argument could be made that they were at their best, but only after a slow start. Illinois would lose in four sets, 3-1 (14-25, 14-25, 26-24, 22-25), on Sunday.
Illinois falls to 14-12 (9-7 Big Ten), while the undefeated Nebraska Cornhuskers move to 25-0 (16-0 Big Ten)
HOW IT HAPPENED
Through the first two sets, the match felt like a repeat of Illinois’ loss last week at Wisconsin. The same could be said about previous three-set losses to ranked teams like Purdue and Penn State.
Sophomore middle blocker Bekka Allick paced the hosts in kills with 12, and was one of four players in red with double digits. The Cornhuskers were out of the gates running, allowing just 14 points in both of the first two sets.
The third set was different. Jessica Nunge served on thirteen of the set’s 50 points, with the team winning eleven. Her aggressive swings, which found the fingertips of the Nebraska block on numerous occasions, earned Illinois several key points.
Illinois was down 22-24 in the set, with Nebraska a point away from their 14th 3-0 win of the season. Several of the 8,584 fans in attendance started leaving early, but four straight Illinois points turned the tides from red to orange.
Illinois would steal the set away from Nebraska 26-24, with back-to-back Raina Terry kills finishing the job. Ten of her 20 kills in the afternoon would come in the third set.
Set four was just about as tight as the third, with no team leading by more than five. Even the five-point Nebraska lead was cut down quickly by a 4-0 Illinois run. Unfortunately for the Illini, they were only in the lead once, early on, by a score of 3-2.
They had to play a lot of catch-up, and against a team like Nebraska, that’s never easy to do. In the end, a Merritt Beason kill closed the curtains to give Nebraska the set and the match, 25-22.
YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
“Is this your seat?” It’s never great to be on the receiving end after a long rally, but come on. Laney Choboy was barely on the court by the time Bekka Allick and Harper Murray went up for the block.
You win some, you lose some. This rally had everything. A pancake, a player falling into the front row, a pair of heroic Caroline Barnes digs (two of her team-leading 14 on the day), and eventually a Cari Bohm block. Bohm had six on the day, which led all players in the match.
The mindset going into the stretch of three-straight road matches was that Illinois could compete with the strong teams. There were encouraging signs: a 22-25 set against (then) No. 1 Wisconsin, a win against an Indiana team receiving votes in the poll and a win against a dangerous Purdue team ranked 16th at the time.
While Chris Tamas’s team flew back home without a win, they proved that they can compete with the best of the best. Stealing a set and being just two or three points away from forcing a fifth set at Bob Devaney Sports Center is something very few teams can do.
The remaining four matches on the schedule are easier than the road match at Nebraska, there’s no argument against that. If Illinois can give Nebraska, the best team in the nation, a run for their money, then they can compete with anybody in the country.
Illinois still has seven wins in their last nine. Those two losses come against the best and the second-best team in the country.
Illinois is back at home for the last two times of the season, starting with the Ohio State Buckeyes. It’ll be another revenge match, with Illinois having lost 1-3 in Colombus earlier this year.
First serve on Wednesday will be at 6 p.m. The game will be on the Big Ten Network and on radio at WDWS.