Sept. 2, 2011
BY AMANDA PRUITT
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- In a long, competitive match that came down to several points here and there, the Tennessee Lady Volunteers came close but could not rally past seventh-ranked Illinois on its home courts Friday night.
Tennessee had opportunities in the first two games, came back to take the third before losing in fourth to the Fighting Illini 31-29, 25-23, 23-25, 25-19 in the opening match of the Illinois State Farm Classic.
Only a handful of Lady Vols had ever played a road collegiate match, let alone against a team ranked in the top 10. Three freshmen started their first road match for the Lady Vols and did not flinch in front of a packed-house Huff Hall crowd of 2,617.
"We took some great swings, and we made Illinois make a good play to win," Tennessee head coach Rob Patrick said. "It's not like we succumbed to the pressure. I'm very proud of the players and how they responded in that kind of match.
"Except for early in a few games, it was a two-point of one-point game the entire match, so we played a lot of big points. I was really excited to see the young players on the court compete. That was as important a point as any today: we learned we can compete for two-and-a-half hours."
Once again, sophomore Kelsey Robinson paced the Lady Vols in nearly every offensive category with a team-leading 22 kills and 17 digs, marking the third time in four matches she had as many as 20 kills.
Tennessee (3-1) were down two games to none but were never rattled when they returned to the courts after the halftime break.
The Lady Vols trailed 21-18 in the third game when they reeled off four consecutive points to take a 22-21 lead. Illinois tied up the match 23-23, but Baker got a kill down the left side to set up game point.
Sahagian tipped in the clinching point to give Tennessee the third game 25-23 and force a fourth.
In the fourth game, Illinois (4-0) took control early 12-6 and never trailed. Tennessee closed the gap to 16-19 but could get no closer as the Illini held on for the victory.
"It was as high a level a match as you'll see in college volleyball in my opinion," Patrick said. "It was a very athletic match -- everyone on the front line was 6-2 or 6-3. You had some great athletic plays, and you had two teams just beating on each other for two and a half hours."
The Lady Vols had their chances in the first game, producing four set points in the first set.
Every time, however, Illinois fought off the challenge. The Illini ultimately took the lead 30-29 when Pollmiller's serve went too far, and closed out the game when Robinson was blocked at the net by Erin Johnson and Colleen Ward.
The Lady Vols return to the courts for two more matches Saturday in the Illinois State Farm Classic. They play Dayton at noon and Houston at 5:30 p.m. Both times are Eastern. A live interactive blog will be available at UTLadyVols.com.
Dayton swept Houston in three games on Friday.