I’m not trying to be a mouthpiece for the University or anyone.
But sitting behind one side of the court at Huff Hall on Saturday night as Illinois defeated Purdue during the Senior Night celebrations, that place was crazy. I’ve been to a lot of Illinois Football and Basketball games over the past four years, but Huff was something else.
In a really good way.
Just look at this place.
Illinois fans are more into this sport than football and basketball combined right now.— Stephen Cohn (@stephen__cohn) November 24, 2018
That’s truly awesome. pic.twitter.com/aUboin9mfA
LOOK AT IT AGAIN.
That’ll do from here in Huff Hall. The No. 4 ranked #Illini take down the No. 12 Purdue Boilermakers, 3-1.— TK (@TKissack20) November 25, 2018
Illinois finishes the regular season with a 28-3 record and will likely be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. pic.twitter.com/SEnvTObpev
That’s how the team feels, too.
“Just knowing that everyone in Huff – outside of the visitor’s section – is with you every point of the way, win or lose. It just feels really great,” said senior middle blocker Ali Bastianelli. “They ride through the points with us, so the highest highs and the lowest lows, they feel it too. They’re a huge asset to our team. At Huff, the atmosphere is unlike any other in the country.
“When everyone is cheering, and clapping, and standing, or whatever it is, you can feel the energy physically. Anyone that has been in Huff knows that.”
Illinois locked up the No. 3 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament on Sunday night, and the Illini will host Eastern Michigan on Friday in the first round before playing either Louisville or Dayton in the second round on Saturday, assuming Illinois wins its first match.
Then Illinois gets two more home matches, potentially, the following weekend.
The Illini’s 28-3 campaign has set them up for home-court advantage through the Elite Eight, which is pretty remarkable — and a legitimate advantage.
“When that place is packed, it’s great,” said head coach Chris Tamas. “It really is a great home-court advantage, and that’s what sold me here when I was thinking about taking the job. This is great for Illinois, but also the sport of volleyball. We’re happy to be a part of it and continue that tradition.”
I was standing outside Huff about 45 minutes before Saturday’s match, and hundreds of people — many who I assume had never been to a match before that one — were waiting to walk into the historic gym.
I tweeted this video.
WITH HUNDREDS ALREADY INSIDE AND HUNDREDS MORE BUSSING OVER.— Stephen Cohn (@stephen__cohn) November 24, 2018
ILLINOIS IS A VOLLEYBALL SCHOOL pic.twitter.com/BZXwDAeddO
And I guess it made its way around.
“I saw the pictures about people lining up outside the door,” Tamas said. “That’s obviously what you want. We’re getting great responses from recruits about it, and we look to keep that going. You can never plan for those things, but winning gets people in the gym. The crowds have been awesome, and that’s fueled us toward the end of the season.”
Compared to the Illini supporters at Illinois’ Senior Day two weeks ago against Iowa — yes, the one where Illinois lost 63-0 — this is incredible.
Others are taking notice, too.
Director of Athletics Josh Whitman and his wife Hope are two of the biggest supporters of Illinois Volleyball, according to Tamas. Whitman attended the Watch Party at Tamas’ house Sunday night.
“It just shows how great he is as an Athletic Director,” Tamas said. “I’ve been around a lot of ADs, and no disrespect to the other ADs I’ve had, but he’s one of the best. Him and his wife Hope show up to everything for us. Always supportive. Always in the stands. Always a text within five minutes after we play. He’s on it, and he’s just one of the best ADs I’ve been around. I’m not saying that because he’s my boss. It’s just really what it is.”
I’ll let Bastianelli take it from here.
“Come one, come all,” she said. “We need Huff rocking as usual. Sell-outs would be great; the atmosphere in Huff is just amazing for us every time. I don’t think some teams get crowds like that, home or away. It could definitely be to our advantage and maybe get some teams out of their element with the atmosphere alone.”
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