CHAMPAIGN — A season-ending loss is never easy to accept. Especially when it also is the last match of your volleyball career.
For senior Jennifer Beltran, Illinois’ record-setting libero, that harsh reality was hard to even consider Friday night.
But reality it was.
Purdue 3, Illinois 0.
“For me, I don’t think it’s really hit me yet,” Beltran said following the No. 18 Illini’s 28-26, 25-20, 25-19 loss to No. 19 Purdue in the Champaign Regional semifinals at State Farm Center. “I wasn’t expecting it to end like this, but it did.”
Even so, the Illini’s career digs leader was thinking as much of her teammates as herself in the wake of this Sweet 16 defeat. Specifically, the 14 Illini players whose careers didn’t end in a sweep at the hands of a Big Ten rival. Fourteen teammates who do have an opportunity to return to one or more NCAA tournaments.
“I’m definitely not selfish, so I said something to the team — just kind of learn (from this) for next year,” said Beltran, who had eight digs to finish her career with 2,220. “Because I know their season starts right now. This one’s done, and it’s on to the next one.
“I want them to just hopefully learn from this and then take it to next year. Make another run at it.”
This run ended with a thud, the 13th-seeded Illini (18-15) outplayed in virtually every phase by the Boilermakers (23-11).
Committing 23 hitting errors, Illinois hit a lowly .111, including .098 and .048 in the final two sets.
The Illini also were outblocked 11 to 4.5 and outdug 54-43 by a Purdue team they had swept Nov. 16 at Huff Hall to earn a 1-1 split in the regular season series.
To UI coach Kevin Hambly, the bright lights and big stage of the Sweet 16 appeared to get to the many postseason novices on his roster. Merely four of his players ever had advanced this deep into the tournament before — three as starters. In contrast, a more veteran Boilermaker team was appearing in its fourth Sweet 16 match in as many years.
“For us, I felt like the whole time we never really got into a great rhythm in anything — offensively or defensively,” Hambly said. “Probably a by-product of a lot of these kids have never been in this moment before.
“You could tell that Purdue had. They were comfortable in a Sweet 16 match, and it didn’t seem like we were. ... Hopefully we’ll feel more comfortable the next time when we’re in that moment.”
This match took a sharp turn — and never reversed course thereafter — late in the first set. After building a 24-21 lead, the Illini were on the cusp of a Set 1 win and even had some wiggle room. Instead, Purdue wriggled out of a seemingly insurmountable hole, fending off three straight Illini set-point opportunities to tie the score at 24.
After later fighting off a Purdue set point, Illinois grabbed a 26-25 lead on a kill and a service ace by Jocelynn Birks (match-high 12 kills).
But again, the Illini couldn’t put away the Boilers, who proceeded to run off three straight points — the last two on kills by Annie Drews — to complete a stunning comeback.
“We kind of came back out of nowhere,” said coach Dave Shondell, who had seen his Boilers pull off the same type of desperation rally while knocking off fourth-seeded Missouri last weekend. “It was almost identical.”
As it turned out, Illinois couldn’t bounce back from that tough-to-swallow Set 1 defeat. The Illini never led in either of the following two sets against a Purdue team that, in Shondell’s words, “executed their fannies off tonight.”
Certainly, the Illini defense couldn’t focus on any one area of an ultra-balanced and diverse Boilermaker attack. Three players finished with nine kills for Purdue, while two others contributed seven and six, respectively.
“I think if we continue to spread the offense ... then we will be harder to beat,” said setter/outside hitter Val Nichol, one of those Boilers with nine kills.
While Purdue could look forward to an Elite Eight match tonight against another Big Ten rival — No. 13 Wisconsin — Illinois no doubt will look back with regret about this particular night but not about an 18-win season against a schedule judged by the NCAA to be the most difficult in the nation.
“I’m disappointed with how we played tonight because I think we could have played better, but I’m not disappointed with the season,” Hambly said. “I asked a lot of these kids. We took on a schedule that was the toughest, and they stood up to it and they fought, and I’m really proud of what we were able to accomplish.”
Wisconsin 3, Florida State 1. The Badgers advanced to the Elite Eight for the first time since 2005 with a 25-15, 23-25, 25-22, 25-15 victory against the No. 16 Seminoles.
Wisconsin (26-9) hit .405 in the clinching fourth set, when Ellen Chapman belted seven of her match-high 20 kills. Teammate Dominique Thompson contributed 19 kills and hit .444 in 36 swings.
Setter and Big Ten Freshman of the Year Lauren Carlini had 53 assists while directing the Badger attack to a .279 hitting percentage.
In contrast, Florida State (26-8) hit .148. Although Nicole Walch finished with a team-high 16 kills, she also committed 10 of the Seminoles' 24 hitting errors.