Illinois snaps Gophers 11-match win streak

by Ben Goessling

When it was over Saturday night, all Minnesota’s volleyball team could do was shake its head.

The sixth-ranked Gophers had battled through two hours and 21 minutes of gut-wrenching competition with Illinois, a match that was sloppy and seamless, ugly and beautiful all at once.

And after all that, after five games of comebacks, blown leads and more aces and errors than the record books could hold, all the Gophers had was a loss not one player believed they would take.

“No one thought we would lose that fifth game, even after we got down,” said outside hitter Cassie Busse, a mix of disbelief and harsh reality coloring her face. “How many times have we come back this year?”

Minnesota’s ability to capture lightning in a bottle finally ran out before 2,507 fans at the Sports Pavilion as the unranked Illini commanded the final two games of a 28-30, 30-28, 27-30, 30-22, 15-11 victory.

The loss snapped Minnesota’s 11-match winning streak, which tied the fourth-longest run in Gophers history.

Minnesota (18-3, 5-1 Big Ten) trailed by at least three points in every game, and if not for 16 aces – which tied a team record in a rally-scored match – the Gophers might not have been around for game five.

“Playing into a hole finally caught up with us tonight,” Minnesota coach Mike Hebert said. “Illinois’ block bothered us a great deal, and we just had too many errors.”

The Illini (9-6, 3-3) tallied 16.5 blocks for the match, 9.5 more than the Gophers and enough to drive Minnesota’s offense into a record-setting state of frustration.

The Gophers broke team marks for errors and lowest hitting percentage in a five-game rally-scored match. Minnesota’s 39 errors were the most committed by the team in any rally-scored match.

Outside hitter Cassie Busse led the team with 24 kills, but committed 13 errors and hit just .159.

Middle blocker Bethany Brafford had nine errors against just four kills, often sending the ball wide as she looked for a seam in Illinois’ imposing front line.

Illinois’ 6-foot-5 middle blocker Lisa Argabright tallied 14 kills, six aces and seven blocks, and outside hitter Sue Webber added 22 kills and 26 digs.

The Illini were a different team Friday night at Iowa, as the lowly Hawkeyes manhandled Illinois in a four-game win.

The Illini’s up-and-down weekend, however, emphatically proved a point Hebert and Illinois coach Don Hardin discussed at length: the Big Ten is a conference where very little can be assumed.

“The teams in this conference can strike at any time,” Hardin said. “You have to be ready to play every night, or you’ll get beat.”

The Gophers ended the weekend 1-1 after sweeping Purdue on Friday night. Outside hitter Erin Martin led the team with 19 kills and Minnesota hit .317 for the match, marking the first time during the Big Ten campaign it has hit over .300.

It became evident early in Saturday night’s match that the Gophers wouldn’t repeat their performance against the Boilermakers.

When Illinois won the second game, it marked the first time since Minnesota’s loss to Northern Iowa on Sept. 7 that the Gophers haven’t swept at home.

Minnesota travels to Iowa on Wednesday and hosts No. 9 Penn State (16-1, 6-0) on Friday in a match which now takes on even greater importance in the Big Ten race.

If the Gophers lose, they could be battling for third place with an Illinois team that might finally have found its groove.

“A lot of people won’t believe this, but tonight had very little to do with preparing for Minnesota,” Hardin said. “It was more about calling people out on the carpet and finally getting our business in order.”