Following one of the most impressive regular seasons in Illinois Volleyball history, the Illini received the No. 3 overall seed in the 2018 NCAA Volleyball Tournament during the Selection Show on a Sunday night. The Illini, who are guaranteed home court advantage through the Elite Eight, will host Eastern Michigan in the first round on Friday.
“I think we deserved it,” said head coach Chris Tamas. “The way we kind of went through the Big Ten this year, we had some close matches but we came out on top and that’s a big deal in our conference. We’ll be ready for any challenge thrown in front of us.”
Starting the season ranked 12th in the AVCA Coaches Poll, the Illini began their campaign with 14 straight victories, including five over Top 25 opponents, and an undefeated non-conference slate.
Tamas said before the season that building a challenging non-conference schedule was part of his plan in preparing his team for the grind later on.
“We played some really tough teams, some teams in the tournament right now,” Tamas said. You have to put together that resume to have the seed that we do and have a really good Big Ten conference. Just proud of the work. You draw it up one way, and they drew it and then some. There’s some Picasso going on.”
With that strong start, the Illini jumped to seventh in the national polls, before losing three of their next four matches — all to teams then ranked above them. At such a critical point, the season could have gone in multiple directions for Illinois, but they picked up right where they left off.
One day after being swept by No. 3 Minnesota, the Illini avenged their earlier loss to Wisconsin on the road. And two weeks later, they took down Nebraska in Lincoln in front of 8,000 fans.
Illinois surged forward once again, jumping to a coveted top-four seed in the AVCA poll, as their RPA switched between third and fourth in the country. Illinois had established itself as one of the elite programs in the country this year.
Illinois capped off its regular season with two huge home wins, taking down seventh-ranked Penn State in five sets before defeating No. 12 Purdue in four on Saturday during Senior Night.
Huff Hall sold out in those final two home matches — and the senior middle blocker Ali Bastianelli says she is excited to continue playing in front of the Illini faithful, but that does not change how her team prepares.
“[Playing at Huff] gives us a really good chance,” Bastianelli said. “It doesn’t really matter from here on out, I think we just need to get into practice on Monday and have an even more driven mentality. Lose and you’re out now so you can’t take games for granted.”
If there’s been a theme to this season for the Illini, it’s battling adversity, and succeeding. After their toughest stretch of the season, the Illini played perfect volleyball. They are undefeated this season in five-set matches, going 5-0.
As the tournament looms ahead, only six games lie between the Illini and a national title, and Illinois is set to make a run for it.
From missing the tournament two years ago to being one of the top teams, only six games lie between the Illini and a national title.
And Illinois is set to make a run for it.
“To do what we’ve done in a short period of time is really impressive,” Tamas said. “Hats off to the players responding to what we throw in front of them.”
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