CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The Illini are headed to the Final Four.
Illinois defeated Wisconsin in front of a sold-out Huff Hall on Saturday afternoon in the Elite Eight. Now, the Illini will travel to Minneapolis to face either Oregon or Nebraska on Thursday with a trip to the National Championship on the line.
After splitting the season series with Big Ten rival No. 6 Wisconsin, No. 3 Illinois came out on top on Saturday. The Illini have won 17 straight matches, a streak dating back to a 3-1 win over the Badgers on Oct. 13.
Now 32-3 overall, Illinois’ region in the NCAA Tournament ran through Champaign as the Illini owned the No. 3 national seed. Beginning last Friday in the first round, Illinois defeated Eastern Michigan, Louisville, Marquette, and now Wisconsin, en route to the program’s first Final Four appearance since 2011. Illinois dropped just one set over the tournament’s first three rounds, sweeping EMU and Marquette along the way.
Like in the October matchup between the two clubs at Wisconsin, Illinois won the first set. Ahead 15-11 at the media timeout, the Illini let the Badgers climb back into the set at 18-16 before finishing it off 25-19. Junior Jacqueline Quade led the Illini with eight first-set kills, as Illinois hit .515 as a team.
Following the October narrative, Wisconsin took the second set. Even early on, the Badgers turned an 11-10 lead into a 24-14 advantage, en route to a 25-15 win. Dana Rettke led Wisconsin with five kills in each of the first set, including five kills on just seven attacks in set two. Illinois hit just .065 as a team in the disappointing second set.
Illinois’ struggles continued early into the third set when the Illini turned to its big guns — Quade and seniors Jordyn Poulter and Ali Bastianelli — to spin a 4-2 deficit to a 7-2 lead. Wisconsin mounted a comeback at 18-17 before Illinois called a timeout, and thought extended the lead out of the break with a kill from junior Ashlyn Fleming. Beth Prince followed by tooling the block on a kill to push the Illini ahead again 20-17.
The Illini had three chances at set point in the third, but a Taylor Kuper service error and Bastianelli attack error kept the Badgers alive before a service error from Molly Haggerty ended the set with a 25-22 Illinois win.
Quade, with 18 kills through three sets, had six on 19 attacks in the third set.
But she was not done there. Quade added four more kills early in the fourth set as Illinois jumped out to a 10-4 lead before Wisconsin head coach Kelly Sheffield called a timeout. Out of the timeout, Wisconsin inflicted a return error and fell behind 11-4, one of its biggest deficits of the day.
Huff Hall only got louder as the set continued, with Illinois up 16-8 on Haggerty’s attack error, but the Badgers went on a 8-2 run and cut it to 18-16. A pair of Wisconsin service errors ended the run.
Illinois won the set, and is off to the Final Four.
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
The 5-Point Run: After dropping the second set and down early in the third, Illinois needed a run.
Wisconsin, ahead 4-2 in the third set, gifted Illinois a free ball on a return error, and Quade picked up the kill. Then, a block from Poulter and Bastianelli tied it up. Then a Quade kill. Then Bastianelli. And a return error.
Suddenly, a 4-2 deficit turned into a 7-2 lead and a Wisconsin timeout. Out of the break, the Illini kept it up, extending the lead with one more point.
The Crowd: Wow. I know that the NCAA Tournament has been in State Farm Center — then, Assembly Hall — before when Illinois was a host. But what an excellent move for it to be in the intimate Huff Hall. It was rocking. Every point. Wow.
When Wisconsin called a timeout down 7-4 in the fourth set, whew, boy. There hasn’t been an Illinois-centric atmosphere like that in years.
TWEET OF THE MATCH
This is TCR Volleyball writer Jacob Rajlich. We love him.
Illinois is one win away from its second-ever appearance in the National Championship. The Illini finished as national runners-up in 2011 after losing to UCLA, 3-1.
The team will likely travel to Minneapolis on Tuesday ahead of Thursday night’s Final Four matchup with either Oregon or Nebraska. Oregon upset No. 2 Minnesota on Friday in the Sweet 16, while Illinois split its season series with Nebraska, with each club winning on the road.
A stat boding well for the Illini this weekend? Illinois is 4-0 in neutral matches this season, with a 13-1 mark on the road.
It’s pretty unbelievable that this same Illinois team — with many of the same core pieces — missed the NCAA Tournament in Kevin Hambly’s final season in Champaign. Head coach Chris Tamas has everything clicking at the right time.
Off to Minneapolis.
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