UI volleyball notes: 'This team fights'

UI volleyball notes: 'This team fights'

CHAMPAIGN — Beth Prince broke away from Illinois volleyball's celebration of its Elite Eight victory on Saturday at Huff Hall to envelop former Illini Alexis Viliunas in a hug.

Work kept Viliunas from attending Friday's Sweet 16 match against Marquette, but nothing was going to keep her from the match that ultimately sent Illinois back to the Final Four for the first time since 2011.

Viliunas was standing courtside after the Illini dispatched Wisconsin in four sets alongside several other former Illinois standouts. Prince, a redshirt junior, along with seniors Ali Bastianelli and Jordyn Poulter — all freshmen when Viliunas was a senior — keep the former setter connected to the program.

"I've watched them develop through the four years that they've been here," Viliunas said. "I just feel a special bond. I know it's a little weird when you're a freshman and a senior — you only have that one short semester together — but you build the relationships throughout the years after.

"We've stayed in touch. I talk to them all the time. ... Before the tournament I texted them and made sure I'm in their mind so that they remembered to have fun and enjoy the ride."

The Illini appreciate the support.

"We're really proud of ourselves and really happy a lot of the alums could see this," Bastianelli said. "I know it means a lot to them, and it means so much for us that they still support us so heavily. We always say the program's a family, and it really carries through."

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Former Illini All-American Michelle Bartsch-Hackley was also back in Champaign this weekend for the regional. Bartsch-Hackley played on the last Illinois team to make the Final Four in 2011, but that group had to leave home and secure its spot in the national semifinals in Gainesville, Fla.

"I am a little jealous that they got to host this regional," said Bartsch-Hackley, who is still playing professionally in Italy and is part of the U.S. National Team. "It was amazing to have all the Illinois fans here. The support that the community brings is so special."

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Illinois rode a confident Jacqueline Quade to a workman-like first set victory against Wisconsin. The 6-foot-2 junior outside hitter had eight kills in the first set to pace the Illini to a 25-19 win.

"Jackie was just dominant," Wisconsin coach Kelly Sheffield said. "She came out in the first set and just tears us up."

It's the second straight match Illinois turned to Quade early. And the second straight match the Fort Wayne, Ind., native came through in the clutch. Quade finished with a match-high 25 kills.

"I guess I always hope so," Quade joked about being able to capitalize on her strong start to the match. "Realistically, I know that at some point teams are going to have an answer. It's battling through that and trying to maintain that throughout the match."

Illinois coach Chris Tamas said Quade has come a long way in being resilient enough to handle how opposing defenses might scheme to stop her. That's come this season in her first as a full-time six-rotation player.

"It doesn't matter what happened last play for her," Tamas said. "She's really good about getting back in the next play and saying, 'All right, set me again.' That instills confidence in Jordyn to be able to give her a ball.

"She knows she doesn't have time to feel sorry for herself. She's going to be involved in the play some way, some how. Six-rotation players have to do that, and she's doing a great job of it this year."

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Wisconsin answered Quade and the Illini's strong first set with one of their own. The Badgers took the second set 25-15 by becoming the aggressors at the service line. Illinois' serve-receive and passing faltered.

"I think we realized the second set was on us," Bastianelli said. "I don't think Wisconsin came out in the second and did anything special that we needed to adjust. It was all on us."

Illinois settled back in after the break following the second set and won the next two in order to lock up its Final Four berth.

Bastianelli said the third set was a "good turnaround mentally" for the Illini, who were able to keep Wisconsin from repeating its second set success.

"I think to beat us you've got to be really good from start to finish," Tamas said. "It just can't be you're going to surprise us with a 25-15 and we're going to go away. This team fights. This team's fought since day one, and I think we showed that (Saturday)."

Illinois' own aggressive serving carried the day. The Illini finished with five aces compared to Wisconsin's two and kept up the pressure from the service line in the first and also final two sets.

"We've had this saying of, 'If you want it, go take it,'" Poulter said. "I think right from the get-go we just started attacking them. We talked about if we serve them aggressive then they're not going to be able to run their offense with their middles as effectively as they want to. I thought we did a good job from the service line."

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Viliunas admitted to being a little nervous watching after the second set, but she ultimately had no doubt in Illinois' ability to turn the match back in its favor. It's what she's seen from the Illini in her trips back to Champaign.

"They beat up on them in the first set, and in the second set they kind of got beat up on a little bit," Viliunas said. "That's just the way volleyball is. ... I feel like Illinois was the better team the whole time. They made it look so easy.

"Jacqueline was amazing. Jordyn is unreal. Everyone on the team can score, and I feel like when you're able to have confidence in each one of the players that is out there, there was no doubt in my mind they were going to win. They were playing with confidence and that swag that showed they were going to do whatever it took to win."

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While Quade got by far the most attack opportunities, Illinois was able to find its trademark balance as Saturday's match progressed. Bastianelli got going late and finished with 11 kills to go with her team-high seven blocks. Prince chipped in nine kills — including the match-winner.

"One of the things that makes it tough to defend us is we have multiple pieces that we can move around multiple different places," Tamas said. "We're able to fill voids or able to just kind of make an adjustment if we're seeing them camp out on certain players or if they're trying to make some movement with their middles. It's going to take a good effort to beat us."

What turned out to be the final play of the match was all Poulter. Tamas challenged the previous point (a net violation on the Illini) and said he and his senior setter had a disagreement about what the play call should be.

"I was like, 'You know what? You've got it. I trust you. Whatever you want to do, go and do it. Set whoever you want to set,' " Tamas said. "You want to instill that trust in your players, and she's proven that trust time and again."

So Poulter set Prince. And Prince scored. And the Illini advanced to the Final Four.Scott Richey