Last remaining hurdle between Illini and Final Four ... Wisconsin

Last remaining hurdle between Illini and Final Four ... Wisconsin

CHAMPAIGN — The Sweet 16 has been anything but for Illinois throughout the program's history with some obvious exceptions. Mike Hebert's teams made a pair of Final Four appearances in the late 1980s. The 2011 team played for a national championship.

But the Sweet 16 has been a fairly formidable road block for the Illini.

Illinois cleared that hurdle Friday, systematically taking apart Marquette for a 25-19, 25-21, 25-16 sweep and its first Elite Eight berth since that 2011 runner-up finish. It also set up another rematch with Wisconsin after the Badgers also swept San Diego at Huff Hall.

"It's really exciting for us," said Illinois junior outside hitter Jacqueline Quade, who led the team with 12 kills in the win. "I think kind of going into this year this was our year. It's really exciting to get past that point that has been where we've been stopping."

Friday was a third Sweet 16 match for Illinois seniors Jordyn Poulter and Ali Bastianelli. They lost as freshmen — swept by Minnesota. After not even making the NCAA tournament as sophomores, they lost again a year ago to Michigan State in four sets.

"Last year to get back up to here and now to even climb a little bit farther, it's really exciting," Poulter said. "It's great for the program and all the support we've received this season and into the postseason. The crowd that we had for an 11 am. match was incredible. We're really happy with where we're at right now."

Just mark down Friday's sweep as another case of Illinois continuing to exceed outside expectations. The Illini did that a year ago, finishing fifth in the Big Ten after being projected significantly lower in the conference and then making the Sweet 16 unseeded only to beat both Hawaii and Washington.

Illinois' done it again this season. Projected to finish fifth in the Big ten, the Illini claimed second all to themselves behind league champs Minnesota. And now they've got an Elite Eight appearance for just the second time in 30 years.

"I still think we're beating expectations, and we'll continue to do our best to do that as we move on here," Illinois coach Chris Tamas said. "As a program, you want to make a statement out there. You want to make sure people know this is what Illinois volleyball is all about. This is how we play. This is how we're going to compete. It's' going to be really difficult to put a ball down on us, it's going to be really difficult to handle us from serve and serve-receive game and we're going to have attackers coming at you."

Illinois proved all of those things Friday against Marquette. Quade's 12 kills were only a part of the Illini's now expected balanced attack. Ashlyn Fleming also finished in double figures with 10 kills, Beth Prince and Ali Bastianelli had seven apiece and Megan Cooney added six.

"They came out on fire offensively," Marquette coach Ryan Theis said. "We tapered it a little bit from there. When we were able to get pressure on them from the service line they became significantly more defendable, but in this environment we didn't serve it as well.

"I think we needed to play our best to be in it, and I don't think (Friday) was our best effort. I didn't think we had it from the service line. We left a few too many opportunities out there to beat No. 3. I think they're No. 3 for a reason. They're awfully good."

Illinois didn't waver on the biggest stage — at least so far — this season. That's not in the Illini's DNA. At least this year. An active 16-match winning streak isn't built that way.

“In prior years, at least me personally, in tense situations I would doubt myself a lot,” Quade said. “I think this year how hard we’ve trained (and) all the things we’ve done leading up to these moments gives us total confidence in each other and in ourselves. There’s not a whole lot of the doubting. We’re going out and we’re doing our thing. We don’t have to do anything special to go do it. This is just who we are.”

Life in the Big Ten helps Illinois in that regard. Marquette’s size in the front row even made the Golden Eagles look like a Big Ten opponent. There was nothing the Illini faced late Friday morning that they hadn’t seen already this season.

“In the Big Ten, you face huge matchups every night,” Poulter said. “For us to have been in really tight, high pressure situations a lot this year against top 15 seeds, I think it just helps when we’re in these situations. We’ve been there before and faced offenses like this before. I don’t want to say we come in more relaxed, but the focus isn’t a tense focus. It’s a very confident focus.”

Illinois will carry that confidence into today’s rematch with Wisconsin. The Illini (31-3) and Badgers (25-6) each pulled off a road win against each other this fall during Big Ten play. The idea of facing Wisconsin again was appealing.

“One hundred percent, yes,” Poulter said about how much she wanted to play the Badgers again. “It’s awesome to see all these teams from the Big Ten be successful and go this far in the tournament. I think it’s going to be a really fun match. I think the fans are going to enjoy it just as much as we’re going to enjoy facing a Big Ten team in the postseason.”