Say this for the University of Colorado volleyball team — when the pressure mounts, even against some of the top competition in the nation, the Buffaloes don't buckle.
CU completed a historic sweep on Sunday night by edging No. 17 Illinois in five sets, outlasting the Fighting Illini for a 19-17 win in Set 5 just 24 hours after putting together a five-set win against No. 13 Penn State in the Pac-12/Big Ten Challenge.
While the Buffs twice posted consecutive wins against ranked opponents in league play last year, and have done the same in the past in the NCAA Tournament, Sunday's victory marked the first time in the 30-year history of the program that CU has knocked off consecutive ranked nonconference opponents during the regular season.
"We did a really nice job both nights of withstanding a lot of pressure, because both teams played at a really high level and there was a lot of ups and downs in both matches," said coach Jesse Mahoney, who has led a 4-1 start in his first season at the helm. "We were able to bounce back each time, especially in the deciding set, and play really good volleyball."
The Buffs were swept by Penn State and Illinois, then ranked No. 1 and No. 6 respectively, on the road last year in the Pac-12/Big Ten Challenge. Turning the tables just a year later at the Coors Events Center has CU riding a burst of momentum heading into next week's matches at the University of San Diego Invitational.
The teams traded wins through the first four sets and CU reached match point on four different occasions late in Set 5 before finally putting away the Fighting Illini.
"I feel amazing, because last year we got blown out," sophomore Naghede Abu said. "To come back from such a loss and to win in such a manner and tough it out, that just felt amazing."
Abu was one of many individual standouts for the Buffs, recording four blocks and adding 13 kills as five different CU players reached double-figures in kills. Through five games Abu, best known as a superb 6-foot-4 middle blocker, has displayed a far greater offensive prowess this season after averaging 4.5 kills per match as a freshman.
After Sunday's effort, Abu is averaging 9.8 kills per match so far this season.
"(Mahoney) definitely came in and brought a whole bunch of new ideas and changed my entire mindset," Abu said. "We all put in the work in the summer. We all worked very hard, and it's starting to show. We're a good team."
Junior Stephanie Shadley also continued her strong start by recording a team-high 15 kills to go with seven digs. Anna Pfefferle led a strong defensive effort with five blocks while also posting 11 kills, and Alexa Smith (11 kills, 13 digs) and Joslyn Hayes (10 kills) rounded out the Buffs' balanced attack.
Former Doherty High School teammates Gabby Simpson and Kiara McKibben continued to share the load in directing CU's offense, with Simpson finishing with 30 assists and McKibben tallying 29.
"I think we're all on the same page this year," Simpson said. "I think last year we were kind of all over the place, and so being on the same page is helping us on and off the court."
Colorado 3, Illinois 2
At Coors Events CenterIllinois (2-3) 17 25 15 25 17
Kills — Illinois: Quade 12, Stadick 10, Bastianelli 10; CU: Shadley 15, Abu 13, Pfefferle 11, Smith 11, Hayes 10.
Blocks — Illinois: Stadick 9, Bastianelli 6; CU: Pfefferle 5, G. Simpson 4, Abu 4.
Assists — Illinois: Poulter 45; CU: G. Simpson 30, McKibben 29.
Aces — Illinois: Donnelly 2; CU: McKibben 2.
Digs — Illinois: Donnelly 22, Poulter 7, Strizak 7; CU: C. Simpson 14, Smith 13, G. Simpson 8, Shadley 7, McKibben 6.