Saturday, September 14, 2013

Pac-12 | Washington overwhelms Illinois; top two volleyball teams fall

Huskies not intimidated by packed Huff Hall gym; #1 USC and #2 Texas both lose
#6 Washington def. #14 Illinois 3-1 (25-21, 22-25, 25-19, 25-13)
  • next: #6 Washington @ Loyola Chicago | September 15 | 1:00PM (Pacific)

Huff Hall is a cozy bandbox arena on the Illinois campus, with a capacity under 4,000. Since 2006, fans have been encouraged to “Stuff Huff” during a weekend of nonconference volleyball against generally top nonconference competition.

Over 3,500 Illinois fans attended the annual "Stuff Huff" tournament featuring Illinois, Washington, Texas and Arizona State
-photo by Illinois Athletics

On Friday, more than 3,500 orange-clad fans sat down to (or stayed standing during) a volleyball feast.

The undercard was a morning match featuring Arizona State. ASU had two match points against Illinois in the fifth set, only to concede three straight kills—and the match—to Illini hitter Liz McMahon. Some who were in the arena reported that, with ASU leading 14-13, McMahon’s attack was clearly wide, but called in by the line judge. Sun Devils coaches appealed to the up ref, to no avail. It was the first defeat of the season for ASU, and ran Illinois’ record to 7-0 during Stuff Huff promotions.

Undoubtedly motivated by the perceived injustice, Arizona State came back onto the court on fire just a few hours later. The opponent: defending national champion—and second-ranked—Texas. The final score: Arizona State 3, Texas 0 (25-18, 25-23, 25-21). The Sun Devils dominated every phase of the game, led by defending Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week Macey Gardner, who had 17 kills.

Washington/Illinois was the nightcap. Two years ago, Illini coach Kevin Hambly’s team lost to UCLA in the national championship match, overwhelmed by the Bruins’ quickness and exceptional passing. Two seasons later, Illinois saw more of the same from Washington.

Illinois' "Spike Squad" at Stuff Huff tournament
-photo by Illinois Athletics

In the past couple of years, we’ve seen elite teams—collegiate and international—switch to flatter, faster-paced sets, designed to punish slow blockers. Media reports (we were not at the match) describe Illinois as a team featuring high, looping sets to its tall hitters. That slower offense allowed Washington libero Jenna Orlandini—the defending Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week—to have another big night with 18 digs. Significantly, Washington hitters Krista Vansant and Cassie Strickland added 11 digs each.

The Huskies further frustrated the Illini with a 10.5 to 5 block advantage. And while the supposed advantage of a loud home crowd is usually felt most at the service line, UW had 10 services aces and just two errors to Illinois’ 2 aces and 11 errors. Strickland’s jump serve bombs produced four of the Huskies’ aces.

Illinois won just one set—the second—when Washington could only sideout 51% of Illinois’ serves (13-25). By the fourth set, the Huskies’ serve-receive was lights-out, allowing the Illini to score just two points on its serve, for an eye-popping 85% sideout success (12-14). Great passing allowed setters Jenni Nogueras and Katy Beals to send those quick sets all across the front line, particularly to Vansant, who connected on 19 kills—and just one error—on 39 swings (.462). Vansant and ASU’s Gardner should be in the mix for this week’s conference Offensive Players of the Week.

Despite the Stuff Huff promotion, despite the noise and distractions, despite playing its first ranked team of the season, Washington made a statement against a team that had already beaten three ranked program this season (not including Arizona State, which was ranked in the smaller Volleyball Magazine media poll and not the much larger AVCA coaches’ poll.) And, for the first time ever, Illinois lost a Stuff Huff match.

  • Washington (5-0) has now won 45 straight nonconference matches dating to 2008 (a 3-2 loss at Hawai’i), and 71of it past 72 (dating to a 2006 3-2 loss to Texas in Madison, WI). During the current streak, the Huskies have dropped just four sets.
  • In the other big match of the day, #1 USC fell to #9 San Diego 3-1 (25-23, 20-25, 25-22, 25-19). The Cinderella Torreros also have wins this season over Hawai’i (in Honolulu), Iowa State (in Ames) and Illinois, and barely lost to Texas 2-3. San Diego, playing at home, beat USC despite the Trojans’ 15-4 block advantage and .268-.236 hitting advantage. San Diego had a huge advantage in digs (81-53), which probably frustrated USC’s star Samantha Bricio, who had just 9 kills and 6 errors on 44 swings (.068).
  • The losses by USC and Arizona State were the only two Pac-12 defeats on Friday. UCLA had the closest call of the winners, defeating Cal State Northridge 15-12 in the fifth set. Northridge will play Washington next week in Seattle.

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