Volleyball’s winning streak ends with Illini

It took seven conference matches, but finally a Big Ten team was able to shut down Nicole Branagh and the Minnesota volleyball team.
No. 23 Illinois stormed into the Sports Pavilion on Saturday and handed the No. 22 Gophers (16-4 overall, 7-1 in Big Ten) their first conference loss of the season, winning 15-13, 15-6, 2-15, 16-14.
It was simple. Illinois had a game plan and they executed it.
Coach Don Hardin said their goal was to close up Branagh and they did just that.
Illinois held the all-Big Ten player to a .155 hitting percentage. She had 20 kills, which came with 11 errors.
“We felt doubling up the block on her rattled her a bit,” Hardin said.
Branagh agreed that the Illini’s blocking game was one of the toughest she has faced this season.
“They had some major blocks on me,” Branagh said. “But I just tried to go out there and hit the next one just as hard, with just as much confidence.”
The Illinois defense didn’t stop with Branagh however. They were able to hold the Gophers as a whole to a .194 hitting percentage.
Minnesota coach Mike Hebert said he expected a long four- or five- game match, but would have liked a different outcome.
He stressed Minnesota’s errors as the reason for the loss.
“Thirty-seven hitting errors is just not going to get it at this level,” Hebert said. “I would circle that number as the number that really spelled doom for us tonight.”
Illinois (11-3, 7-1) played like a more experienced team than the Gophers. Minnesota often seemed frustrated by the Illini’s play out on the floor.
Hebert said the Gophers are clearly a step behind Illinois.
“We felt like we were responding to the match instead of leading most of the night,” Hebert said.
Illinois shut down Minnesota in the first two games before the Gophers battled back to win the third game.
But the Illini were just too tough for Minnesota. Illinois regrouped for the fourth game to win the match.
Hebert said he was happy to see his team fight back and not give up in the third and fourth games. But the Gophers just didn’t have luck on their side.
“We couldn’t buy a break,” Hebert said. “We get one there, and we are playing in the fifth game. Then it’s anybody’s match.”
Hardin said the key to success in the Big Ten this season is a team’s ability to win away from home.
“We feel this year it’s been a Jeckyl and Hyde situation for teams,” Hardin said. “They play one way at home and then on the road they have really struggled.
“Winning this away match was huge for us,” Hardin added.
The weekend was not a total loss for the Gophers. Minnesota opened the two matches with a solid win over Indiana, 15-2, 9-15, 15-9, 15-9 Friday night.
After dominating the first game, the Gophers struggled against the tough-serving Hoosiers (12-5, 3-5) in losing the second game.
It was the first game that Minnesota had lost since the first game against Wisconsin seven matches ago.
“We had been accustomed to just having our way,” Hebert said. “Their servers rattled our confidence and didn’t allow us to get into any kind of offensive rhythm.”
But Minnesota was able to regroup for the next two games and finish off Indiana. Hebert was impressed with the way the Gophers put the loss behind them.
“We absorbed that blow,” Hebert said. “Our ability to withstand that and reassert our control of the match was very impressive.”
Setter Lindsey Berg said the loss in game two was due to poor communication.
“We were tense and we needed to relax,” Berg said. “It was tied and we had no reason to be down.”
Minnesota was led by Branagh’s 28 kills and 16 digs, and Berg’s 53 digs.
But the key stat in the match was the Gophers doubling-up the Hoosiers in blocks 14-7.
After the match, a clearly satisfied Hebert talked about his emotions as a coach after a big win.
“I was very happy with the way we came back,” Hebert said. “When (the team) does things like they did tonight it leaves me emotionally high.
Hebert was seen leaping in excitement after the win.
“My vertical jump is down a little bit,” he added. “If I got caught on TV with my shoes off the ground then I will go with that.”

ù Berg reached two milestones Friday night — and she’s only a sophomore.
Berg served up her 100th career ace and moved into fourth place on the Gophers’ all-time assist list. She passed Jennie Collings, who had 2,115 assists from 1983-86.
She finished the weekend with 2,180.
ù Saturday night’s crowd of 3,703 was the second largest in Sports Pavilion history and seventh largest in school history.
The school record is 6,046, set in 1990 against Purdue at Williams Arena.

John R. Carter covers volleyball and welcomes comments at [email protected]