"I thought it was a pretty good match," said Leonid Yelin, U of L head coach. "We did a good job preparing ourselves and staying calm and playing our own game. We did what we wanted to, which was to win."
The Illini came in as self-billed streakbusters, having broken USC's 52-match home streak earlier in the season and then beating Ohio State when the Buckeyes were 19-0. But the only Cardinal streak they broke was U of L's 18-match sweep streak. U of L had never beaten its former coach, Don Hardin, in five previous attempts, including last year's NCAAs when the Cards lost 3-1, vaulting the Illini into the Sweet Sixteen.
"I never made it a revenge thing, because then your team's goal becomes to just win one match and loses sight of the big picture," said Yelin.
U of L, the third-ranked blocking team in the nation, had not been outblocked this season and had 12 blocks to the Illini's 9. The Cardinals run their winning streak to school record 21-straight matches.
U of L staved off several Illini runs in the first game to take a 23-19 lead. The Cards withstood a late 5-2 run as Illinois pulled to within one at 26-25 . The teams traded points before a Jennifer Hoffman kill stopped U of I 30-27. The Cardinals hit an uncharacteristically chilly .135 but outblocked U of I 6-4 led by Ana Yartseva's five. Louisville also had four service aces with Lena Ustymenko notching two.
The Illini came back in the second game, taking a 15-7 lead over the Cardinals on a kill by Rachel VanMeter, who had nine kills in the second set. U of L went on an 10-2 run to tie at 17. Illinois bounced back with a 10-1 run of their own to go up 27-18. Although the Cardinals scored twice more, the deficit proved to be too much to overcome as Illinois won 30-21. U of L hit .071 in the second set and added only a single block to their totals.
"They did a good job in the second game of serving and knocking us off our offense," said Yelin. "We haven't lost a game in so long, I wasn't sure how the team would react. But we improved our first pass and the setters got the ball to Bing and Lena and they got going offensively."
The Cardinals regrouped after the break and took game three 30-19. After leading 19-10, U of L withstood a serious challenge from the Illini in a 6-1. But this time, the Cardinals answered with an 8-2 run of their own. Cardinal hitting helpfully heated up to .425 to Illinois' .114. Jennifer Hoffman and Sun each had four kills to lead the Cardinals in that set.
"Just making up that seven-point deficit in the second game was a big thing, even though we lost that game, it showed us we weren't going to fold." said Yelin.
U of L battled to a 16-12 lead in the third game and then built the lead to 21-15 and forced an Illini time-out. U of L kept blocking well and then with a 28-22 lead, Ustymenko uncorked two straight aces to take the game and match.
"Mentally we knew we had to get more blocks," said Hoffman, who ended the match with six. That is what we do. So we had to relax and rely on our defense and get blocks and let our teammates back us up. We focused on No. 15 (VanMeter) and No. 6 (Jen Hyndes). We especially targeted VanMeter because we knew she was their primary hitter."
Despite the attention, VanMeter had a match-high 19 kills as Illinois went to her 62 times, the season's second highest season attack total for the junior from Lexington, Ky.
"We remembered her from last year and we knew with the graduation of their seniors, she would move into the primary spot," said Yelin.
Ustymenko's hit .302 with 18 kills, a career-high six aces and 12 digs made for her tenth double-double of the season. It is the 12th match where three or more Cards have recorded double digit kills. Sun added 17 and Ana Yartseva contributed 11 kills and 11 digs to the effort for her ninth double/double. Setter Jennifer Craven had 40 assists and seven digs.