Volleyball: Despite pressure, playing at their best

Volleyball: Despite pressure, playing at their best

Hear more from coach Tamas Monday at 5:10 on WDWS.

CHAMPAIGN — Jacqueline Quade didn't have any elaborate celebration plans on Sunday.

A long flight from Seattle to Indianapolis with her Illinois volleyball teammates filled the sophomore's time.

So did studying. Not up on Michigan State, the Illini's Sweet 16 opponent this Friday after Illinois pulled out a thrilling 25-22, 17-25, 20-25, 25-17, 15-9 second-round NCAA tournament win against host and No. 8 Washington late Saturday night at Alaska Airlines Arena.

But rather accounting.

"I wish I could say it was a big party," Quade said, "but I have a big exam on Monday."

By the time the entire Illinois traveling party made its way back to the UI campus on Sunday evening from the Pacific Northwest, preparations were already underway for what lies ahead.

Another plane ride is on tap for later this week. This time the destination is State College, Pa., instead of Seattle.

More quality competition awaits, with Big Ten foe Michigan State lurking in the Sweet 16 at 3 p.m. on Friday. And a chance to continue their season past this upcoming weekend is possible. Two more wins and Illinois (23-10) advances to its first Final Four since 2011.

"It's really awesome for us to just live to play another week. We're pretty excited," said Quade, who registered a team-high 17 kills against the Huskies. "We're a pretty young team and technically, I guess I'm one of the young kids, but we're just not ready to be done. It's really a huge team effort right now. Everyone wants to keep playing."

And playing well. Which is what Illinois is doing on its current five-match win streak, the third such time this season where the Illini have won at least five consecutive matches.

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

It's why Tamas didn't single out any one particular player who was instrumental in the Illini rallying from a deficit midway through the fourth set on Saturday night, with Washington needing to win only one more set to close out the match.

It was Illinois, however, who would withstand the pressures and challenges to reach the program's eighth Sweet 16 in a decade.

"It's not one person who was doing all the work," Tamas said. "It takes a good pass to get a good set and a good set to get a good swing. Everyone did really well as a team. It was just a great team effort again."

Megan Cooney (13 kills) and Beth Prince (12 kills) both registered double-digit kill totals, with Jordyn Poulter directing the offense with 49 assists and Brandi Donnelly — the Illini's lone senior — finishing with a team-high 16 digs.

"Going into the match, we really had nothing to lose," Quade said. "We were the unranked team, and it was on (Washington's) home court. We didn't have a lot of pressure on us."

Of course, winning the first set like Illinois did gave the Illini some added swagger.

"Going up at the beginning of the match is always pretty big," Quade said. "It makes it so much easier to play loose and go after different shots. There's definitely nerves in any match, especially big ones like this one, but I don't think we let those affect us at all."

Beat Michigan State — which swept the Illini on Nov. 10 in East Lansing, Mich., in the only meeting between the two teams in the regular season — and either top-ranked Penn State (31-1) or Missouri (22-11) awaits at 7 p.m. Saturday.

Illinois has lost its last three Sweet 16 matches since the 2011 team finished as national runners-up. But after outlasting Hawaii and Washington in five sets this past weekend, they'll get a chance to erase those recent regional semifinal defeats against the Spartans.

"(Michigan State) is a good team, but 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."