Hardin leads Illini volleyball to Sweet 16 in final season

The Illini celebrate after beating Cincinnati in three straight sets Saturday night at Huff Hall to advance to the Sweet 16. Erica Magda

Taylor Johnson

The Illini celebrate after beating Cincinnati in three straight sets Saturday night at Huff Hall to advance to the Sweet 16. Erica Magda

By Kate Munson

After announcing early last week that he plans to retire following the season, Illinois head coach Don Hardin has one last shot to coach in the round of 16.

The last time the Illini went that far in the NCAA Tournament was 2003.

At the time, Erin Virtue was a junior setter for Illinois.

But when the Illini took the court against the University of Cincinnati on Saturday to fight for a trip to the round, Virtue was on the other side of the net as an assistant coach for the Bearcats.


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Illini advance to Sweet 16

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Illini win first NCAA round

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“My assistant Erin Virtue was a great player for Illinois …” Cincinnati head coach Reed Sunahara said early last week. “I’m just following her as the head coach this weekend.”

But Virtue’s inside knowledge of the Illinois volleyball program wasn’t enough to overcome a resilient Illini squad that defeated the Bearcats in three sets (26-24, 25-20, 25-22).

“We lost to a really good team tonight. They’re in the top 20 for a reason,” Sunahara said. “Illinois just kept coming at us and we didn’t execute at a high level down the stretch, so hats off to them.

“They’ve got a lot of weapons. (Laura) DeBruler is unbelievable and their outsides are go-to kids and they did a good job tonight,” Sunahara added.

DeBruler led the Illini offense with 18 kills while hitting .349.

And Cincinnati was unable to find an answer for DeBruler all night, despite utilizing three blockers at times against the All-Big Ten hitter.

“Everybody in the gym knew she was getting the game-point set and they still couldn’t do anything about it,” Hardin said. “It was very, very impressive.”

But DeBruler wasn’t the only sophomore who led the Illini on Saturday. Middle blocker Johannah Bangert recorded nine kills on the night.

And Nicole Kump, who has been limited for most of the season due to injury, stepped in for a hampered Abby Nelson and stabilized the team.

The sophomores’ performance wasn’t lost on Hardin.

“They represent the bulk of the sophomore class that’s out there keeping incredible composure in the late sets of game after game after game all season long, and now in the NCAA Tournament it’s no different,” Hardin said.

The offense powered the Illini to victory Saturday, but it was the block that secured the win Friday. The Illini recorded 13 team blocks against the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and held the Panthers to a .017 hitting percentage on the way to a three-set (25-8, 25-26, 25-20) victory.

Winning the first two rounds of NCAA Tournament matches in straight sets sends a message that Illinois deserved the No. 9 national seed, which will be tested by No. 8 nationally ranked California on Friday.

But it also reassures the Illini they can win under pressure.

“I think it’s really exciting and it says a lot about our team as a whole,” sophomore setter Hillary Haen said. “These games have been actually pretty close and we have been able to keep our composure out there and just continuously go after a team and not back down.

“I’m really impressed by a lot of people and I definitely think that it makes a statement to the teams that we’re going to go play this next weekend,” Haen added.

But the Illini aren’t content with just reaching the round of 16. With Hardin retiring and the loss of the seniors looming, the squad wants to continue to practice and play together – and have another possible shot at No. 1-ranked and undefeated Penn State.

“I’m just glad that we have another week with this team because after whenever the loss comes, in the spring the team will be different,” DeBruler said. “It’s just great that we can hopefully stay as long with this team as possible.”