Illini volleyball overcomes tough 1st set to reach Sweet 16

Illinois volleyball is back in the Sweet 16 for the second consecutive year, but it didn’t come easily.

The Illini defeated Dayton in four sets at Huff Hall in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday night. The route to another Sweet 16 berth got off to a rough start, though, as Dayton edged out the Illini, 28-26, in the first set.

“It would have been easy for us to hang our heads in the first set, especially after we were down big, and not fight back, but this team is very resilient,” head coach Kevin Hambly said. “The girls just competed so hard and we found a way to win. I’m proud of the way we performed and stayed calm under some tough circumstances. That Dayton team is a very good team, and they present a lot of problems for us, no question.”

Illinois came back with a vengeance in the second set, winning 25-8, and then booked its ticket to the next round by taking the final sets 25-17, 25-18.

“We have lost first sets before and come back from it,” junior Hillary Haen said. “So I don’t think we got nervous, and we knew that we ended the first set really well. But it does give you a lot of confidence to come back and really give it to a team and keep them in single digits. That helped us realize the kind of fighting attitude we needed to maintain for the rest of the match.”

Illinois now has a date with Hawaii on Friday in the regional semifinals in Stanford, Calif. The Illini are no stranger to the Sweet 16, having made it that far last season.

“For us, this has been one of our goals for our entire season, so it’s just another stepping stone as far as going as far as possible in the NCAA Tournament,” junior Laura DeBruler said. “It’s good having the experience and being at home also really helps. We had a great crowd and they were getting really into it.”

DeBruler and sophomore libero Rachel Feldman stole the show. DeBruler hit a remarkable .455 while racking up 22 kills, 11 of which came in the first set alone. Feldman had 26 digs, a record number for an Illini in the postseason.

This is the first time the Illini have made back-to-back appearances in the Sweet 16 since reaching the round for five consecutive years from 1985-89 and is Illinois’ 11th such appearance in program history. Now, the Orange and Blue are focused on advancing further, possibly to the school’s third Final Four.

“I think we knew the work that it took all season long,” Haen said. “There was no point in the season where we could let up and start getting worse because you need to peak at the end of the season. I think it also helps that now we know we have to elevate our level of play even more to go to California and compete as hard as we can.”