Entering the final stretch of the season, Illinois has finally been able to climb above .500 and stay there, and has now won four straight matches. Despite starting the season ranked sixth in the AVCA Coaches Poll, the Illini had struggled initially against a tough non-conference slate before entering Big Ten play against some of the best teams in the country, including a brutal three-week stretch where the Illini faced four Top Ten opponents.
Illinois took care of business during last weekend’s road trip, defeating a struggling Maryland program along with a big four-set win against an Ohio State team that had just come off of an impressive upset against Big Ten-leading Wisconsin. A loss to the Buckeyes would have been catastrophic to Illinois’s tournament chances.
The Illini now find themselves at 16-12 following tonight’s win against Northwestern, in four sets (25-18, 25-22, 23-25, 25-18). Seniors led the way for the Illini on Senior Night, as Jacqueline Quade led the team with 20 kills and two aces, while Ashlyn Fleming was right behind her with 12 kills and an ace of her own. Fleming was huge on the block as well, picking up nine. Setter Diana Brown guided the offense to success, collecting 52 assists on the night.
With one game remaining in the season, a road match against Northwestern once again Saturday, the Illini find themselves fighting to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, with an RPI sitting at 43. Another win against Northwestern likely won’t do much to bolster Illinois’s ranking there, but based on previous years’ tournament fields, it should be sufficient to secure a spot in the NCAA Tournament. That bracket will be unveiled Sunday evening, at 7:30 p.m. CT on ESPNU.
There’s nothing quite like the postseason, and hopefully Illinois will be one of the 32 teams that hears its name called as an at-large bid Sunday. Despite falling from the top-10 where they started early on in the season, the Illini have held a place in the top-25 all year and have played well against some of the toughest teams in the country.
Provided that they do get a spot in the NCAA Tournament, I’d look for them to be a sleeper team and pick up some upsets, similar to the 2017 team which made it to the Sweet 16 following upsets of Hawaii and Washington, during Chris Tamas’ first season.