CHAMPAIGN — The Illinois volleyball team had about 22 1/2 hours of uncertainty between Saturday night’s regular-season finale loss at Northwestern and the start of the NCAA tournament selection show.
Senior outside hitter Jacqueline Quade said she made sure she stayed busy Sunday. No sitting around stressing about whether or not the Illini would earn a tournament berth or not for her. Illinois coach Chris Tamas said he “put up a lot of Christmas lights.”
The Illini still had to wait through half of the bracket reveal on top of that 22 1/2 hours of limbo, but it was worth it.
Illinois (16-13) is in the NCAA tournament for the third straight season with a first-round matchup set for 5 p.m. on Friday against Utah (22-9) on the BYU campus in Provo, Utah. The Illini were officially one of the last four teams in the tournament field along with VCU, Washington State and Wright State.
“Being a bubble team is a really scary experience after a year of such confidence,” redshirt senior outside hitter Beth Prince said. The only intrigue last season was whether or not the Illini would get a top four national seed. They did, hosted four rounds at Huff Hall and made the Final Four.
“To be on the other side of the spectrum is a hard place to be,” Prince continued. “I saw the name on the screen before I really heard it, and then didn’t even hear them say ‘Illinois’ because the room kind of erupted. It was a moment of passion for the school. It was just a great feeling in the room for sure.”
Sunday could have meant the end of four Illinois volleyball careers. Prince, Quade, Ashlyn Fleming and Caroline Welsh played their final match at Huff Hall on Wednesday — a four-set win against Northwestern. They didn’t want Saturday’s four-set loss in the rematch with the Wildcats to be their final Illini volleyball moment.
“I think it would have been pretty sad to end on a sour note,” Quade said. “Northwestern played a great game, but for us as a team it’s definitely not how we wanted our season to end. I would say definitely getting one more chance — especially after (Saturday) night — we’ll take full advantage of that in the gym this week.”
All of the Illini get a few more practice at Huff Hall. Then at least the match against Utah. It’s all extra for Prince.
“I’ve been lucky enough to have a bonus year,” said Prince, who redshirted in 2015. “To extend it as long as possible, I’m cheating the volleyball gods, but I’m going to keep doing it as long as I can. I love wearing orange and blue and love wearing ‘Illinois’ across my chest. To get to do that in Huff Hall for practice and get to do it one more match outside the regular season it’s a fulfilling feeling. We want to extend it as long as we can.”
Illinois did so despite finishing just three games above .500 for the season. The Illini went 2-11 in the regular season against teams that also made the NCAA tournament — beating Marquette on a neutral court and winning at Purdue — and then 14-2 against everybody else.
“I think our body of work,” Tamas said was the determining factor in the Illini moving off the tournament bubble in the right direction. “Thirteen losses are nothing we’re happy about, but those losses came against really quality opponents in really tight matches. Our strength of scheduled helped put us over the top as well. I’m glad the committee saw that. I still feel like we’re trying to play our best ball right now.”
Tamas still had some uncertainty following Saturday night’s loss at Northwestern. While teams like Illinois State and St. John’s winning their respective conference tournaments to steal bids was something Tamas and the Illinois coaches tracked, it was out of their control. They simply had to wait for the “in or out” news Sunday.
“I think if we would have won (Saturday) it would have all but assured a spot,” Tamas said. “But we knew the work that we put in. I still felt the body of work we put in was good enough to be where we’re at.
“One of our mantras has been to win three sets by two points. In some of the bigger matches we’ve just been on the short end of those. I know we have the talent to do that and the mindset to do that. This coming weekend is the perfect weekend to test that out.”