An upset in Lexington: Illini volleyball takes down hosts, reigning national champions in four sets


Photo Courtesy of Fighting Illini Athletics

Illinois outside hitter Megan Cooney goes up for a spike during the match against Kentucky in Lexington on Saturday. The Illini beat the No. 7 Wildcats in four sets to advance to their first Sweet 16 since 2018.

By Jackson Janes, Sports Editor

Entering the evening as the underdog, Illinois looked anything but that on Saturday, taking down host and reigning national champion No. 7 Kentucky, 3-1 (25-22, 20-25, 25-10, 25-21), to advance to its first Sweet 16 since 2018.

Sophomore outside hitter Raina Terry, playing in her first postseason tournament, registered a career-high 27 kills on a .321 clip in the four-set victory, while graduate student outside hitter Megan Cooney tallied 17 on a .302 clip and junior middle blocker Kennedy Collins finished with 10 on a .381 clip.

“We knew it was going to take every bit of everything that we had to beat this team because they’re a great team, defending champs and champs of the SEC,” said head coach Chris Tamas. “We knew that it was no easy task in front of us, and we had to rely on what we did all year, which is our serving game and being really good out of system, and I thought both teams played well in that regard but we were able to turn a few more points when it mattered.”

After a slow start against West Virginia on Friday, Illinois jumped out to a quick 7-4 lead, with Terry picking up three kills during that stretch. The Wildcats then used a big 4-0 run to take a 9-8 lead, but a 4-1 Illini run saw the visitors regain their advantage.

The two squads then traded points before a second 4-1 Illinois run saw it jump out to a four-point lead — its biggest of the set.

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With a four-point lead late in the set, Illinois looked in control, but a 4-0 Kentucky lead tied the set at 21. Despite the momentum being in the Wildcats’ favor, the Illini registered three straight kills from junior middle blocker Kyla Swanson, Collins and Terry and served for the set.

Though Kentucky fought off one set point, the Illini took the first set, 25-22, behind seven kills from Terry.

The Wildcats looked much more lively early in the second set, using three kills from SEC Player of the Year Alli Stumler en route to a 6-3 lead. But that didn’t last long, as the Illini used a 6-1 run to snatch a 9-7 lead, their first of the frame.

Kentucky didn’t let that run last long, using five straight points to retake a three-point lead, an advantage it never let slip away.

With the Wildcats leading by five late, the Illini were able to cut their deficit to two following kills from Collins and junior outside/right side hitter Jessica Nunge and a block from Swanson and redshirt junior setter Diana Brown.

Closing the set on a 4-1 run, Kentucky took the frame, 25-20, to tie the match at 1.

What came next was nothing but pure domination from Illinois. With a one-point advantage and a 6-5 lead early in the third set, the Illini closed the frame on a 19-5 run in the Wildcats’ most lopsided set loss of the season.

Two separate 5-0 runs and a 4-0 stretch gave the Illini one of their most impressive, one-sided sets of the season, using a .609 team hitting clip and just one error to give them a commanding 2-1 lead in Lexington.

“We talked a lot about just a sense of urgency, not letting up, keeping our foot on the gas, and I think we did a really good job with that in the third set for sure,” Terry said of the team’s mindset in the 25-10 third-set victory.

Looking to seal the upset in four sets, the Illini picked up right where they left, opening the fourth frame on a 10-1 run behind six Terry kills, two Cooney kills, a block solo from Collins and a block assist from Terry and Swanson.

Seemingly in total control, Illinois held onto its big lead before Kentucky went on a 4-0 run to cut its deficit in half, but it still trailed, 12-8.

The Illini were not going to be stopped, though, using a 5-2 run via kills from Cooney, Terry and Swanson to extend their lead to seven points, 17-10.

The Illinois lead never dropped below six points before the Illini eventually were serving for the match. After the Wildcats fought off four match points which saw their deficit shrink to just three points, a Swanson kill put the match away, clinching the Illini’s upset victory.

Illinois will play No. 10 Nebraska in the Sweet 16, a team the Illini have yet to win a set against this season. The match will be played in Austin, Texas, on Thursday.



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