Volleyball: Illini celebrate NCAA tourney berth

Volleyball: Illini celebrate NCAA tourney berth

CHAMPAIGN — Illinois’ NCAA tournament selection show watch party Sunday night was a 180 degree shift in atmosphere from the same event a year ago.

That one was rife with emotions for the Illini. Anxiety without a firm idea one way or another about their tournament chances. Anger and disappointment when their name wasn’t called among the 64 tournament participants.

The Tamas household Sunday night — filled with players, coaches, family, support staff and administrators — was a joyous one. Which only grew when Illinois’ first-round match with Hawaii in the Washington Regional was announced.

The Illini (21-10) and Rainbow Wahine (20-7) will play at 7 p.m. Friday in Seattle. The winner will face the victor of that same night’s match between LIU Brooklyn (20-9) and the host No. 8 seed Huskies (24-7) for a spot in the Sweet 16.

“A lot of different feelings going on,” Illinois junior middle blocker Ali Bastianelli said. “Obviously, we’re really happy and excited our season is going on even longer. We were disappointed, obviously, last year that we didn’t make the tournament.”

“I think a little bit of the motivation of not making it carried into this season,” Bastianelli said.
Close matches that went against Illinois ultimately kept the Illini out of the tournament in 2016. That they felt they could have and should have won them only added to the disappointment.

“I think the whole season we always had it in our heads we would for sure make the tournament,” senior libero Brandi Donnelly said about missing out on the NCAAs last year. “After some disappointing losses, that negativity kind of seeps into your mind of we might not make the tournament. Morale was low at the end.”

Sunday was an entirely different feeling.

“I think it was kind of nice coming here having a pretty positive idea we were in,” Donnelly said. “That was different — a lot less anxious.”

First-year Illinois coach Chris Tamas felt good about his team’s chances before the Illini knocked off then No. 7 Minnesota on Nov. 18. Finishing the season on a three-match winning streak by adding victories against Iowa and Ohio State has Illinois playing at a tournament ready level.

“I think it’s a good indication of where we’re at right now,” Tamas said. “That unit has played a lot together this year, so they really do trust each other and they’re able to feed off each other in certain moments.

“I really wanted it for them more than anything because I knew how hard they had worked up to this point. To be able to have a good run in the Big Ten and be in the tournament, I’m just really proud of the girls.”

Tamas had already downloaded film on several different teams before the bracket was announced Sunday. Hawaii wasn’t actually among that group, but Tamas is familiar with the Rainbow Wahine from his time as an assistant in the Big West. Plus, his wife and Illinois volunteer assistant Jen Tamas played with Hawaii coach Robyn Ah Mow-Santos on the U.S. National Team.

“As soon as everyone leaves,” Chris Tamas joked Sunday night about when his prep would start. “I’ve seen them a handful of times this year. I still have a connection with the Cal Poly team that won the Big West. We’ll take a look at that film later tonight.

“We know Robyn’s a competitor, and we know we’re going to expect a battle just as we have all Big Ten season. … I think it helps we’ve been in the Big Ten and been able to see lots of different styles and lots of different types of players.”