KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Illinois volleyball leaned on Jacqueline Quade early in Friday’s season opener at Tennessee. Hard.
It made sense, though. The senior outside hitter is a returning First Team All-American. She also provided a veteran presence for an Illini team that had three true freshmen and a redshirt freshman making their debut. On the road. Against the ranked Volunteers.
Illinois’ comeback from a 2-0 deficit at Thompson-Boling Arena, though, meant getting production from more than just Quade. The sixth-ranked Illini eventually managed to get better balance in their attack, put up a progressively better block and survived in a brutal fifth set for a 24-26, 23-25, 25-22, 25-17, 23-21 victory against No. 16 Tennessee.
“I think it took us a while to kind of get settled into a groove, and that’s usually what to expect for the first game of the year,” Illinois coach Chris Tamas said, comparing it to last year’s opening night victory against Colorado State. Same injury-necessitated lineup shuffling. Same need to go to five sets.
“We always say three sets by two points, and we literally did that tonight,” Tamas continued. “We knew that Tennessee was going to be a great opponent. It’s the reason why we agreed to play them back to back. They were taking some really big swings at us and kind of put us back on our heels. once we settled in and got a little more groove, every coach is going to talk about he serve and pass game. We have the experience in that passing corps where they don’t get rattled.”
Neither does Quade. The 6-foot-2 Fort Wayne, Ind., native set a new career high with 31 kills to go with 15 digs for her 14th career double-double. Redshirt freshman setter Diana Brown went to Quade often — she took 85 swings — and the preseason All-Big Ten Team selection delivered.
“She did that last year for us, and she’s going to do it again,” Tamas said about Quade carrying a heavy load. “The other team knows the ball’s going to her, and she’s still finding a way to score. That’s what elite scorers do. She was a steady force for us out there taking big swings in big moments.”
Strong play in the final three sets from Ashlyn Fleming, who put down the winner in the fifth, and Megan Cooney proved to be a difference maker, though. Fleming chipped in 16 kills and four blocks, while Cooney got to 19 kills after settling in at outside hitter. The 6-4 junior had to play on the left with both Beth Prince and Bruna Vrankovic unavailable.
“In (the third) set, everyone was all in,” Quade said. “It was really do or die. Everyone was going out swinging. We know it was our last chance to keep the match going. We started finding our groove and used the good things we were doing to gain confidence and gain momentum.”
Illinois used that confidence to ultimately prevail in the lengthy fifth set. The win against the Volunteers pushed the Illini’s record to 9-1 in their last 10 matches to go five.
“I think just going into that fifth set from the two previous sets we had so much confidence that I think kind of the whole time it was like, ‘Let’s go after it. Let’s go take it,’ ” Quade said. “There was never a moment of being on our heels. That was really cool to see.”
Illinois and Tennessee will meet again in less than 48 hours with a 1 p.m. Sunday rematch at Huff Hall. The Illini will honor their 2018 Final Four team and recently-retired longtime play-by-play announcer Dave Loane and then try to pick up a second win against the Volunteers.
“Rest,” Tamas said was on his team’s schedule until then. “We’re not going to practice in between. It will be recovery and watching some film like, ‘Hey, this is where we can make up some points.'"
In men’s cross-country
Loud wins title. Irwin Loud captured the men’s 8K title at Friday’s Illini Open at the UI Arboretum in Urbana. The Illinois redshirt sophomore won with a time of 25 minutes, 22.3 seconds.
In women’s cross-country
Craddock wins season debut. Rebecca Craddock clocked the eighth-fastest time in Illini program history when she took first place in the 5K with a time of 16 minutes, 58.1 seconds at the Illini Open at the UI Arboretum in Urbana.
Craddock’s victory also helped the Illini place first as a team with 19 points, thanks to Illinois runners filling out four of the top five positions.
Illini claim ranked road win. Trailing early in the second half, Illinois rallied for a 3-2 win over No. 22 Pepperdine in Malibu, Calif., on Friday and remained perfect through three games this season.
The Waves scored in the 24th minute before Arianna Veland answered for the Illini in the 40th, leaving the score tied at one heading into halftime.
Nearly 10 minutes after the Waves took a 2-1 lead, Kendra Pasquale evened things in the 59th minute, while Maggie Hillman’s goal in the 82nd proved the decider.
Jaelyn Cunningham made three saves for Illinois, which won its first ranked game since last August against then-No. 14 Oklahoma State.