Top 5 Illinois sports moments of the semester

By Meghan Rest, Assistant sports editor

The University of Illinois might not be home to the most successful teams in the country –– or even the Big Ten –– but the fall season was still filled with historic milestones and plenty of memorable moments.

No. 1: Volleyball makes it back to the NCAA Final Four for the first time since 2011

The Illinois volleyball team not only finished the regular season with a No. 3-rank in the NCAA, but won more than 26 games (28-3) for the first time since the team was the NCAA runner-up in 2011 under former head coach Kevin Hambly.

After cruising through the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament against Eastern Michigan (3-0) and Louisville (3-1)  at home, Illinois blanked No. 14 Marquette in the third round and moved onto fellow Big Ten contender No. 6 Wisconsin in the Sweet 16. The Illini squashed the Badgers in four sets (3-1) to move onto the Final Four, which will be held in Minneapolis on Thursday.

The four-game winning streak in the tournament extended the team’s win streak to 17 games overall, marking Illinois’ first trip back to the Final Four in seven years. Illinois is slated to play against No. 7 Nebraska in Minneapolis, Thursday at 8 p.m.

No. 2: Iowa bulldozes Illinois 63-0, ties for largest margin of defeat in school history

Illinois hadn’t lost a football game by a 60-point margin since 1906. That is, before the Hawkeyes rolled over nine touchdowns and 400 total yards on the Illini, Nov. 17.

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The last time Illinois was shut out that badly was at the University of Chicago in 1906, when the team was stifled 63-0 in an eerily similar fashion.

During Illinois’ final home outing and it’s second-to-last game of the season, the Illini struggled to hang onto the ball and allowed the Hawkeyes to start drives six times in home territory throughout the night. The Iowa game pushed Illinois’ average points given up to 56.3 points per game in its six Big Ten losses before the season finale.

No. 3: Lovie Smith gets two-year contract extension after 4-8 season

Originally, Lovie Smith was signed to Illinois’ head coaching gig under a six-year $21 million contract in March of 2016. After going 9-27 in his three years at the helm of the program, Athletic Director Josh Whitman announced Smith’s two-year extension into 2023.

The announcement came at the end of this year’s 4-8 season, after Illinois posted two notable losses to Iowa (63-0) and Northwestern (16-24) and saw the resignation of defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson. The team also had a slew of player suspensions earlier in the season.

However, in lieu of the announcement, Whitman cited his faith in the program under Smith, especially with only nine seniors and 80 underclassmen on the team’s roster.  

“This extension demonstrates my belief in Lovie Smith, his staff, and the plan they have for the future success of Illinois Football,” Whitman said.

No. 4: Soccer beats No. 3 Duke, makes first Big Ten tournament appearance in three years

The Illinois soccer team kicked off its fall campaign with a three-game losing streak, but snapped it August 19, by toppling one of the best teams in the country.

Illinois overcame No. 3-ranked Duke in a close 2-1 battle, marking the program’s first win over a top-three ranked opponent since defeating No. 3 Penn State 1-0 in 2012. The Illini finished off the Blue Devils with two goals in the first half from freshman Makena Silber and sophomore Katie Lee, who scored off senior Patricia George’s corner kick.

But Illinois’ win over Duke wasn’t an isolated incident. The team only lost one more battle (DePaul, 3-1) before embarking on a five-game winning streak that would propel the Illini into their first winning season in three years and their first Big Ten tournament appearance in that period of time.

Illinois capped off their season 6-5 in the Big Ten, going 11-8-1 overall with a notable shootout win against Wisconsin during the first round of the Big Ten tournament.  

No. 5: Illini baseball becomes first NCAA team to play in Aruba

Illinois took off on Nov. 18 for a six-day six-game series in Curaçaou and Aruba over fall break. And although the Illini went 2-3-1 on the outing, they became the first NCAA team to compete in Aruba.

NCAA rules limit teams to one international trip every four years, and Illinois’ island trip followed the program’s first excursion to the Dominican Republic in 2014.

Teams from Curaçaou and Aruba were made up of invited players, current and former professional players and national team members. Among them was Curaçaou’s former Washington Nationals and Minnesota Twins pitcher Shairon Martis, who aided Curaçaou’s 2-0-1 series win over Illinois during the first half of their trip.

Illinois spent the last three days of its journey in Aruba, where the Illini edged a 2-1 series win over their international foes and took home the Aruba Cup title.

Honorable mentions: 

The women’s cross country never placed outside the top-five at each meet until the Big Ten Championships; the swimming and diving team sent an athlete to USA Swimming Winter Nationals for the first time in over five year; and Illinois’ Athletic Department announced new $8 million indoor baseball complex to be finished in 2021.

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