Gophers lose in five sets to No. 3 Illinois, defeat Northwestern

The Gophers volleyball team struggled to play consistently at home for a second straight match.

Charlie Armitz

 

Gophers interim head volleyball coach Laura Bush has stressed throughout the 2011 season that her team is a work in progress.

As No. 9 Minnesota split its home weekend series against Illinois and Northwestern, BushâÄôs words rang more true than ever.

The Gophers (8-3) defeated the unranked Wildcats 12-25, 25-23, 25-22, 25-17 on Sunday at the Sports Pavilion, but struggled to play consistently at home for a second straight match.

âÄúA win is a win. We take them however you can get them,âÄù Bush said. âÄúItâÄôs fortunate we donâÄôt have to rank the quality of a match âÄî I wouldnâÄôt be happy with that.âÄù

After jumping ahead 6-5 to open the match, Minnesota lost 11 straight points and 21 of 27. The Gophers had as many attack errors (10) as kills in the first set, and were out-blocked 4-0.

The dynamic of the match changed, however, when Bush replaced starting setter and Big Ten assists leader Mia Tabberson with freshman Kellie McNeil to begin the second set.

McNeil established her presence early in the set with a number of deflections against the WildcatsâÄô attack, which helped Minnesota gain an early lead and eventually win the set, 25-23.

In the third set, McNeil, who was setting her first match of the season, made better passes and connected with her hitters.

âÄúMy teammates made me feel really comfortable out there,âÄù McNeil said. âÄúEverything that they were doing was helping me out. The passers were really on, and the hitters told me what to do.âÄù

Gophers outside hitter Ashley Wittman seemed to benefit most from McNeilâÄôs play. Wittman racked up 18 kills in the last three sets after posting just two in the first.

âÄúOnce [McNeil] stepped in, that brought us a new energy,âÄù Wittman said. âÄúShe got the hitters going really well.âÄù

Minnesota dominated play for much of the third and fourth sets, and put the match out of reach with a 10-0 run on Tori DixonâÄôs serve early in the fourth.

 âÄúThis is one of those matches that we were able to get the points at the right time,âÄù Bush said.

Gophers fall to No. 3 Illinois

On Friday night, the hosting Gophers had no answer for No. 3 Illinois, losing 25-20, 18-25, 22-25, 25-20, 10-15 in a match defined by sloppy play.

Minnesota committed 32 attack errors in the loss, 30 of which came in the last four sets.

âÄúIt wasnâÄôt a pretty match,âÄù Bush said. âÄúIt was a valiant effort by us, even though we werenâÄôt at our sharpest.âÄù

The GophersâÄô only errors in the first set came on a pair of Illinois blocks on MinnesotaâÄôs set point.

But those blocks proved to be the turning point in the match.

After Minnesota won the first set and took a 12-9 lead in the second, the Illini went on a 21-6 run to win the second set and take a 5-0 lead in the third.

Illinois eventually won the third, but never led in a fourth set dominated by the GophersâÄô defense.

In the fifth set, Illinois took a 3-0 lead on three blocks and never looked back.

The Illini had 16 total blocks for the match to MinnesotaâÄôs four. Their block was especially effective against Wittman, who made 13 attack errors while hitting .093.

âÄúThey caught me a lot,âÄù Wittman said. âÄúToward the end I got a feel for where they were, but they did a really nice job blocking.âÄù

The GophersâÄô other star outside hitter, senior Hailey Cowles, hit .400 in the fourth set but had more errors than kills (-.286 hitting percentage) in the fifth. At 5-foot-10, she also struggled to deal with IllinoisâÄô tall blockers.

âÄúBlocking is a big momentum switch for a team,âÄù Cowles said. âÄúIt gives you a lot of energy. ItâÄôs hard to come back from that.âÄù

Much of IllinoisâÄô strong blocking came from its aggressive serving. The Illini forced Minnesota into making errant passes throughout the match, which made the GophersâÄô offense predictable and vulnerable to blocks.

âÄúThey played a really good serve game that we have not seen this year,âÄù Bush said. âÄúWe didnâÄôt see it on tape.âÄù

MinnesotaâÄôs serving and blocking improved against Northwestern, but both are still a concern heading into the thick of Big Ten play.

And for the first time in 2011, the GophersâÄô starting rotation is also a concern.

âÄúAnyone can be replaced,âÄù Bush said after the Northwestern win. âÄú[Benching Tabberson] might be a one-time thing, it may not.âÄù

âÄúWeâÄôll see how we handle practice this week and make a decision on Friday.âÄù

Minnesota will play next at Ohio State on Friday. The Gophers will then travel to Penn State on Oct. 1 for a match with the four-time defending national champions.