More than anything, long-suffering Illini fans needed something to cheer about ... a spirit lifter ... a team to truly get lost in.
The women of volleyball rose up to check every box, from sportsmanship to eye-popping talent, from unmatched teamwork to pressure-defying, late-game tenacity (going 5-0 in five-set matches), and all with student-athletes who emphasize the student portion of it.
Made us feel good all over, didn't it!
The only shortcoming is that Huff Hall can no longer seat the 7,000 that long ago attended basketball games at Huff Gym. Because volleyball, once an easy "A" as a university phys-ed class (in my day), has surpassed other women's sports as an attention grabber, and they drove it home Saturday with a stirring 3-1 triumph over Wisconsin in the rubber match between those Big Ten powers.
Make way in Minneapolis for the perfectly-timed setups by Jordyn Poulter, the lethal smashes of high-riser Jacqueline Quade, the net-dominating ferocity of Ali Bastianelli and a supporting cast that coach Chris Tamas works through complex rotations.
They started an unlikely 17-game streak by upending the Badgers in Madison on Oct. 13, carried it through four NCAA dates at home, and now they take it into Gopher-less Gopherland (the hosting Gophers lost to Oregon in an epic match Friday).
No favors done
Not that the world of TV made it easy for UI fans. An 11 a.m. start against Marquette on Friday was obviously difficult for classroom attendees and clock-punching workers. And to compound a felony, Saturday's Elite Eight showdown chimed in at 3 p.m., terribly illogical since the Illini-UNLV basketball clash that tipped at 1 p.m. not only stole attention but also parking spaces at State Farm Center.
But the creaky old joint with terrible sight lines was packed both days, and the game was also devoured on ESPNU, radio and social media.
Those unable to personally witness were nevertheless engaged, much as they follow (and cheer) Mike Small's successful golfers on far-away links.
Big two lag behind
Meanwhile, the two sports driving the athletic department's budget are mired like snow-bound sleds without their huskies.
How bad is it?
While volleyball has qualified for NCAA playoffs 25 times under four coaches since 1985, Illinois hasn't reached postseason in football or basketball since Dec. 26, 2014 when Louisiana Tech downed the UI 35-18 in the Heart of Dallas Bowl. That ties Rutgers, which defeated North Carolina on that same day, for the longest two-sport drought by any Power-5 school.
And we look back on a 12-year span — TWELVE YEARS — in which Illinois has produced two NCAA basketball victories over UNLV in 2011 and Colorado in 2013, and two bowl wins over Baylor in 2010 and UCLA in 2011.
Stealing the show
Turning to this school year, Illinois shows four football victories and, counting Saturday's nervous 77-74 defeat of UNLV, three basketball triumphs. That total of seven bests only Rutgers (with six) among the Power-5 conferences. With 23 wins in the two major sports since September 2017, the Illini stand alone beneath their peers.
So when you see a meager 5,000-plus show up for the Ohio State basketball game in Chicago, you can't really blame UI fans for becoming persnickety. Fans want wins, particularly at home. Minnesota is the only major football victim at Memorial Stadium in the last two seasons, the other wins coming against Ball State and Western Kentucky in 2017 and Kent State and Western Illinois in 2018. In 10 seasons, Illinois owns nine home football wins in Big Ten play.
But I digress. The women of volleyball have scooped up the Illini pennant and are running with it. Nor should they feel any pressure in Minneapolis. Win or lose, they can't let us down because they've already lifted us to unexpected heights.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com