By Will Desautelle, GoPSUSports.com student staff writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - The third-ranked Nittany Lions swept the Illinois Fighting Illini on Friday night (25-19, 25-17, 26-24) to begin the third and final weekend of a current home stand.
The Illini entered the game with an 11-2 record, with their losses coming against a pair of strong Pac-12 opponents in Stanford and Colorado. The six they lost coming in were all by a two-point margin.
Penn State rebounded from a 1-1 weekend last week, erasing some uncharacteristic performances Saturday night by getting back to doing what Penn State does best.
Russ Rose's squad was much more polished in the serve and pass game on Friday night, allowing the Nittany Lions to establish their middles early and often.
Haleigh Washington led the way with 11 kills on 17 attempts, hitting .647 on the night with four blocks. Heidi Thelen also continued her torrid stretch with six kills, hitting at a .625 clip, with six blocks. Tori Gorrell also chipped in four kills of her own to give Penn State's trio of middles a combined 20 kills for the match.
"[Heidi] was our leading blocker tonight and that's why she's in there," Rose said. "Last week they were scoring at will over that position and then we put her in and I think she's done a nice job there."
The Nittany Lions cruised through the first two sets, showing a defensive grit that forced the Illini into a lot of hitting errors.
Illinois leading hitter Jacqueline Quade, struggled to get into a rhythm all night against a much bigger Penn State front line. Quade led the Illini with nine kills, but she also made 11 errors on 30 attempts, hitting -.067 on the night.
Penn State served aggressively, compiling six aces in the match, an area of improvement this week for the Nittany Lions that made it difficult for the Illini to pass well and establish their middle blockers up front.
Ali Bastianelli came into Friday leading the nation in blocks per set and finished with nine blocks to make things difficult for the Nittany Lions, particularly in the third set.
"She's a phenomenal blocker and she's been a phenomenal blocker all three, four years she's been around," Washington said. "She's got great form, gets her hands over the net, so we knew that coming in we wanted to avoid her as a blocker."
Thanks to an abundance of experience, the Nittany Lions eventually figured things out and battled back from a 19-16 deficit in the third set to sweep the Illini.
On a night where Simone Lee was not as dominant as she typically is, Penn State got back to running their middles with effectiveness and allowed their efficient play to carry them to a big win at home.
"We felt that part of our problem last week was that we didn't run middle enough," Rose said. "I've identified that Haleigh didn't have a great weekend, but I also did not have a great weekend, so we moved on."
Penn State improved to 12-1 (2-1 Big Ten) on the season with the win and will take on Northwestern tomorrow night in Rec Hall before heading back out on the road next weekend.
"Northwestern is very good," Rose said. "We lost to them a couple years ago, so our players recognize that we're going have to be ready to play."