Gophers beat highest-ranked foe ever

With Kellie McNeil as the new setter, Minnesota was swept by unranked Northwestern and swept No. 3 Illinois.

Charlie Armitz

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. âÄî In a week full of surprises for Gophers volleyball, MinnesotaâÄôs historic win over No. 3 Illinois on Saturday night almost felt like a foregone conclusion.

No. 15 Minnesota shocked a Huff Hall crowd of 2,180 Saturday night in Champaign, Ill., defeating the host Illini 3-0 and recording its first-ever win over a school ranked in the top-three nationally.

It was the result many expected to see Friday night, when unranked Northwestern swept Minnesota in Evanston, Ill., in Kellie McNeilâÄôs first start as a Gopher.

McNeil, a freshman setter, replaced junior Mia Tabberson in the starting lineup for both weekend matches.

She finished with 62 assists âÄî 31 in each match âÄî eight block assists, eight digs and three kills.

To Minnesota interim head coach Laura Bush, the numbers donâÄôt tell the story as much as the teamâÄôs comfort level with McNeil the second time around.

âÄúWe made some changes in our lineup, and those changes worked,âÄù Bush said after SaturdayâÄôs 25-19, 25-20, 25-15 win. âÄúLast night, it was still our first run at [the changes] âÄî we knew it would be a tough way to get a win. But the team settled into it.âÄù

Bush said after FridayâÄôs 25-23, 25-23, 25-21 loss that she never considered substituting Tabberson for McNeil âÄî not even after the Gophers fell behind two sets to the Wildcats.

âÄúI knew from the very beginning we were going to stick with Kellie,âÄù Bush said. âÄúThat was my internal commitment that this is what weâÄôre going to do … I thought for a freshman she did a very good job.âÄù

Throughout the Northwestern match, McNeil struggled to set her two middle blockers âÄî Tori Dixon and Ariana Filho.

Dixon and Filho combined for five kills on just 13 attempts Friday night.

Saturday was a different story, as both the teamâÄôs passing and McNeilâÄôs setting showed noticeable improvement. Those two factors gave MinnesotaâÄôs middle blockers an opportunity to impact the offense.

âÄúI did feel more comfortable [than last night],âÄù McNeil said. âÄúI think our level of intensity helped pick that up. We were just playing âÄî we were having fun out there. We just kept consistent out there.âÄù

McNeilâÄôs teammates also contributed her success, just as they did in her first appearance at setter Sept. 25 against Northwestern.

âÄúWe just continued to tell [McNeil] it doesnâÄôt need to be a perfect set,âÄù Filho said. âÄúI thought our passing and digging was on, and putting those in system really helped the middles. It all started to work together for us.âÄù

 Dixon and Filho each had six kills while hitting above .500. Filho had one error in 10 attacks; Dixon had no errors in nine attacks.

âÄúWe opened [McNeil] up a little bit more on what she could do with the offense,âÄù Bush said. âÄúWe had to have [the middles] involved; otherwise, it was just going to become a battle of the outside hitters, and IllinoisâÄô outside hitters are stronger than our outside hitters.âÄù

The GophersâÄô win was its seventh in its last eight matches at Huff Hall.

It was also the IlliniâÄôs first home loss, and first straight-set loss, of 2011.

Illinois (21-2, 10-2 Big Ten) defeated Minnesota 3-2 at the Sports Pavilion on Sept. 23 by utilizing a dominant serving game.

This time, it was the Gophers who served the Illini off the court.

Minnesota tied a season-high with seven aces and had five service errors. The Illini had zero aces and 11 service errors âÄî their worst differential of 2011.

âÄúIt finally worked,âÄù Bush said of the teamâÄôs aggressive serving. âÄúWeâÄôve been working on this since February and March, and I think the players are finally starting to own that they can serve really well in a match. They were able to not only do their best serve, but also serve strategically.âÄù

The Gophers also held Illinois to season-lows in hitting percentage (.087), kills (28), assists (28), digs (37) and points (36).

Both teams had 20 errors, but Minnesota had 36 kills and hit .162. Ashley Wittman led the team with 10 kills, and Hailey Cowles added seven.

Dixon had four aces, and added six of the GophersâÄô 18 block assists.

As a team, Minnesota out-blocked Illinois 9-8. The Illini didnâÄôt record their first block Saturday night until the second point of the second set.

A month ago, the Illini out-blocked the Gophers 16-4.

Minnesota (13-8, 6-6 Big Ten) returns home next weekend to begin a stretch of six of eight matches at home. The Gophers host Penn State (10-2 Big Ten) on Nov. 4 and Ohio State (6-6) on Nov. 5.