Stunning ending to season leads to outpouring of emotions for Illini

Stunning ending to season leads to outpouring of emotions for Illini

MINNEAPOLIS — Jordyn Poulter tried to fight the tears that welled in her eyes.

It was a hit-or-miss proposition.

They were there even if most of them — through some real effort — ultimately remained unshed.

But those tears came not because of Thursday night's Final Four loss to Nebraska. That the Illinois volleyball setter was able to put into measured perspective despite the season ending two days before the Illini wanted.

No, the tears came for what that 22-25, 16-25, 25-23, 25-20, 15-11 victory by the defending national champion Cornhuskers meant.

An end of an era.

Poulter attended her last college lecture before Illinois left Champaign for the Final Four. She'll turn in her last term paper today from Minneapolis. Then she'll graduate on Sunday.

Two of the best individual Illini careers — fellow senior Ali Bastianelli included — are finished.

"I think you think about the things that we had to go through," Poulter said not long after the Illini walked off the court at a sold-out Target Center following their loss. "Went through a coaching change. We went through just people transferring. We went through people coming in. Ultimately we stuck it out.

"I think that's special. I think when we reflect on our time here, we're going to talk nothing about the losses or bad things that happened to us. We'll talk about experiences like this. It's really special to have gotten to do this with (Bastianelli, fellow senior Blayke Hranicka and redshirt junior Beth Prince). ... We're all kind of leaving what's comfortable, moving forward with our lives."

That's where Poulter stopped. Too many more words and the tears really would have come.

Prince had the same challenge. She came to Illinois in 2015 along with Poulter and Bastianelli before redshirting that season after suffering another ankle injury right before the start of the regular season.

"I don't know college without them," said Prince, who will return in 2019 for her final season. "I don't know living in an apartment without them. I don't know Illinois volleyball without them. That's really tough. They're my best friends.

"Those two and Blayke mean a lot to me as people and as teammates. It's been incredible to get to do college with them, do life with them."

Illinois' season looked like it had two more days left early in Thursday's national semifinal match. The Illini won the first two sets against Nebraska and had the Cornhuskers particularly flustered after a 6-0 start in the second forced coach John Cook to burn both of his timeouts in that span.

But the Cornhuskers rallied. Won the third set. Then the fourth. And finally the fifth, snapping Illinois' streak of eight straight wins in five-set matches dating back to the end of the 2017 season.

"We knew they weren't going to go away," Illinois coach Chris Tamas said about the Cornhuskers. "You don't make it to four straight Final Fours by chance. They had one of the best outside hitters in the country with Mikaela (Foecke). We knew they were going to ride her. We knew they're not going down without a fight.

"They're a force out there. It's just difficult. You have to execute really well over the course of a match."

Jacqueline Quade was the driving force behind Illinois' strong start. Really, the entire match.

Poulter set her early — and often — and the newly-minted first team All-American finished with a match-high 28 kills.

Through the first two sets it looked like enough. Nineteen kills apiece for Nebraska by Foecke and Lexi Sun, though, meant it just quite wasn't against the Cornhuskers.

"I would say coming out really strong the first two sets as a team is something you always really like to see — coming out pretty fast," Quade said. "They definitely took a hit back at us in the third and fourth. Props to them for that. I think we managed it pretty well. We were still doing really good things throughout the match. Just really came down to that fifth set, and they got us in that."

Illinois was looking forward to a national championship showdown with Stanford, which is now led by former Illini coach Kevin Hambly. He recruited 13 of the 15 players on the Illinois roster. There would have been just something extra about that matchup.

But the Final Four loss, in Poulter's not quite tear-stained eyes, didn't diminish what the Illini accomplished this season.

"I think this whole season we've kind of been told that we're different than a lot of Illinois teams that have been around in the last seven, eight years," Poulter said. "We've been told that by alumni, former coaches, our own coaching staff. I think that it's great that we get to represent the university and ourselves and kind of leave that legacy. For Ali, Blayke and I, the seniors, it's awesome that we get to leave this way."