They’ve done it!
Illinois Volleyball advanced to the Final Four after an exciting final weekend at Huff Hall. After taking down Marquette and No. 6 Wisconsin, the Illini will face Nebraska this coming Thursday at 8 p.m. CT.
The Final Four
The three other teams in the Final Four besides the Illini are Nebraska, BYU and Stanford.
Nebraska is the first opponent the Illini will face, in what will be another rubber match for the Orange and Blue. Just like Illinois’ matchup against Wisconsin in the Elite Eight, these two teams split their regular season matches and will face off one more time, in their biggest match of the season to date.
On the opposite side of the bracket from Illinois lies BYU. This team has only lost one match this season (to Loyola Marymount), and is the only program to have defeated top-seeded Stanford all season long (more on them later). Despite many considering them to be overrated, they’ve put together an impressive performance in the tournament so far, capped off with a sweep of No. 5 Texas in the Elite Eight, and a win over Stanford would silence the haters.
The top-seeded team in the country, Stanford has rolled through the tournament so far, defeating Penn State to secure its Final Four spot. Coached by former Illini coach Kevin Hambly, the Cardinal have only lost once this season, to the BYU team they will play in their semifinal match. Stanford is looking for redemption and a title, and a win against BYU would be extra sweet under those circumstances.
Illinois vs. Nebraska: Illinois in Five Sets
Illinois split its matches with Nebraska earlier this season, with both matches going four sets. But with a national championship spot on the line, neither team is going to give in. These two teams are both incredible, and they will fight for every point.
Illinois has the edge in this match in its mind, just based on how it played Wisconsin on Saturday. After losing at home and winning a closely contested match on the road (which featured a 35-33 set at one point!), the Illini took care of business the third time around, dropping them in four sets, and fighting back after a disappointing second set.
Illinois’ ability to come out swinging with a dominating first set, wrapped up with a resounding comeback after losing the second, was demonstrative of how this team has handled the limited adversity they’ve faced so far.
If the match does end up going five sets, the advantage is clearly toward the Illini, who are undefeated in five-set matches this season. Meanwhile, Nebraska is .500 in those crucial fifth sets. Illinois has been able to pull out the stops and put away all five opponents that have taken them to five sets, whether the opponent was Northern Colorado or Penn State.
Stanford vs. BYU: Stanford in Four Sets
Hands down, Stanford is the best program in the country. The Cardinal have only lost once, and they played a much tougher schedule than BYU. Combine that with the desire for revenge, and I believe that Stanford has the advantage.
Four sets is a reasonable expectation for this match given Stanford’s superior play, but I can’t see them sweeping BYU. This should be a close match from the get-go, but I expect Stanford to pull away as the match progresses, with the first two splits being set while Stanford finishes it in the next two.
This next week is going to be an exciting one for Illini fans, even more exciting than the last two. I have hoped for an atmosphere in Huff like that for years, and my wish was finally granted Saturday against Wisconsin.
To see more than 4,000 fans all on their feet, all cheering and clapping on the 20th point of the fourth set was something I never thought I’d see, and it gave me chills. The Illini spirit was present and the strongest I’ve seen it since I’ve been a student here.
This Illini spirit can only continue and grow in the coming week. Wear Orange and Blue to work or class. Show your spirit in any way that you can. And watch or go to these matches this coming week. We have been able to witness one of, if not the best, Illini athletic programs in history this year, and we’re not done yet. It’s a great time to be an Illini fan.
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