Illini volleyball advances to Sweet 16

Illini volleyball advances to Sweet 16

SEATTLE — The timeout didn’t yield an inspiring speech or legendary advice that will go down in Illinois volleyball lore.

With his Illini trailing host Washington 13-10 in the fourth set on Saturday night and only 12 points away from seeing their season end, first-year coach Chris Tamas kept his message simple.

“We had just missed about four swings literally by an inch,” Tamas said. “I looked at everyone and said, ‘Hey, I like everything we’re doing right now. I really do. Keep taking good swings. Let’s get after them on the service line a little bit better and see what we can do with that.’ Obviously, fortunes changed.”

Yes they did. And Illinois is into the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament after Saturday night’s thrilling 25-22, 17-25, 20-25, 25-17, 15-9 win against the host Huskies in second-round action at Alaska Airlines Arena.

Illinois turned that fourth-set deficit into a 17-16 lead before closing out the fourth set and forcing a decisive fifth set.

“We definitely knew it was do-or-die at that point,” said Jacquline Quade, the Illini’s sophomore outside hitter who finished with a team-high 17 kills. “There’s always pressure in those kinds of situations, but we just had a lot of confidence that we were more than capable of getting out of that hole and taking that set. That confidence really took us through the whole match.”

Illinois (23-10) had little trouble against the Huskies (25-8) in the final set, either, taking an early 5-2 lead and carrying that the rest of the way to send the Illini into the Sweet 16 for the eighth time in the last decade.

 

The season will continue this Friday night against Michigan State (23-8) at Rec Hall on the campus of Penn State. 

Top-ranked Penn State (31-1) meets Missouri (22-11) in the other regional semifinal match, with the winners set to meet in the Elite Eight next Saturday.

All that work and preparation for the Spartans will commence this week, but the Illini made sure to enjoy the moment on Saturday night.

“Everyone’s playing their best volleyball right now,” Tamas said, “and that’s what you look for at this time in the season.”

Along with Quade, Megan Cooney (13 kills), Beth Prince (12 kills), Jordyn Poulter (49 assists) and Brandi Donnelly (16 digs) paved the way for Illinois to reach the Sweet 16 a year after Illinois missed out on the NCAA tournament.

“We’re just not ready to be done,” Quade said. “It’s really a huge team effort right now. Everyone wants to keep playing.”

They’ll get the chance to do so against a familiar foe. Michigan State swept the Illinois on Nov. 10 in East Lansing, Mich., the only meeting between the two Big Ten teams this season.  

“They’re a good team, and we weren’t playing our best volleyball then,” Tamas said. “I’m excited to play them on a neutral floor when we’re playing a little bit better now.”

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