Illini notch another top-10 win, push win streak to 9 matches

Illini notch another top-10 win, push win streak to 9 matches

CHAMPAIGN — Fans started pouring into Huff Hall as soon as the doors opened at 6 p.m. Saturday.

Sure, winter weather might have sped up the process, but so did the demand for tickets for the top-10 matchup between No. 4 Illinois and No. 7 Penn State.

Illinois fans filled Huff to the literal rafters and plenty of fans made it a standing-room only affair. The Illini men's gymnastics team — the majority of them eventually shirtless — showed up en masse and occupied one baseline. The battle between Big Ten powerhouses would have a capacity crowd of 4,152 on hand.

The sellout crowd eventually got what was advertised. Illinois overcame a slow start to turn Saturday's showdown into an epic match the Illini won 15-25, 25-22, 27-25, 23-25, 15-13 for their ninth straight victory.

"The crowd was unreal," Illinois junior outside hitter Jacqueline Quade said. "That's one of the joys of playing in Huff Hall is having the fans on your side."

That Saturday night's win was ultimately decided on a block by Jordyn Poulter and Ali Bastianelli was fitting. The Illini seniors hadn't beaten Penn State in four previous tries in their career. They made their last shot count.

Just like Illinois made its final regular season match against a top-10 opponent count as it tries to lock down its best possible NCAA tournament résumé. Four Big Ten teams have dominated the top of the conference in the last several years. Saturday's win means the Illini have beaten three of them — top 10 Wisconsin and Nebraska, too — this season.

"Next practice is Monday," Tamas said about that NCAA tournament résumé. "I know that. We don't have much control over that other than doing what we do every game, which is come in this gym, work our butts off and take care of business when we can."

The team is very much singularly focused, and they're doing a really nice job of it."

Perhaps attribute Illinois' first set struggles to some lingering Rutgers rust. Penn State was advertised in the early going. Tough serves. Physical at the net with its attack and its block. The aggressors in every since of the word.

But Illinois found its footing, rallying to win the second, third and fifth sets. The Illini relied heavily on Quade to do so. The 6-foot-2 Fort Wayne, Ind., finished with a game-high and new career high 29 kills.

"We knew she was going to be a big part of it," Tamas said of Quade. "They attacked her a lot on serve, but that's just a tribute to Jacq and how hard she's worked and how great of a player she's become."

Beth Prince added 14 kills for Illinois in the win, while Ashlyn Fleming had 11. Poulter led the way with 55 assists, 13 digs, seven kills and six blocks, and Morgan O'Brien paced the Illini defensively with 24 digs.

WHAT HAPPENED

A top-10 matchup between Big ten powerhouses? Who didn't see it going five sets. No point came easily — at all — but the Illini ground out another five-set victory to extend their winning streak to nine straight matches.

WHAT IT MEANS

Saturday night's win only further cements Illinois' status as one of the elite teams in the country. That nine-match winning streak? Count a trio of top 10 Big Ten opponents in it after the Illini took down the Nittany Lions.

WHAT'S NEXT

The Illini have just four more matches left in the regular season, and Wednesday's rematch at Northwestern is the first of three in a row on the road against three of the bottom four teams in the Big Ten.

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