Illinois volleyball heads south to take on familiar foe Nebraska in Sweet 16 of NCAA tournament

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Angel Saldivar

Setter Diana Brown reaches for the ball during the game against Indiana on Nov. 12. The team is traveling to Austin, Texas to compete against Nebraska in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament.

By Jackson Janes, Sports Editor

Coming off a second-road upset win over No. 7 Kentucky, Illinois (22-11 overall, 12-8 Big Ten) heads south to Austin, Texas, to take on No. 10 Nebraska (23-7 overall, 15-4 Big Ten) in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament. 

The match will be played on Thursday starting at 8:30 p.m., and the winner will play either No. 2 Texas or No. 15 Washington, which Illinois lost to in four sets at Huff Hall on Sept. 3 in the Elite Eight on Saturday.

Though the Illini have already played the Cornhuskers twice this season, both of which came in straight sets, head coach Chris Tamas admits this team has changed since they last played on Nov. 4.

“I know every team evolves as the season goes on, and everyone starts adding as they get better, or things change on rosters (or) they have to start adding things to their mix in terms of what play sets they run or maybe how they score points,” Tamas said. “We always have to look at what they’re doing right here and now, and obviously we’re gonna go back to see what happened the last few times.

“I like what we did both times against them; we just couldn’t pull those two out.” 

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Nebraska’s offense is led by First-Team All-Big Ten junior outside hitter Madi Kubik, who averages 3.47 kills per set on a .213 clip, while Second-Team All-Big Ten senior setter Nicklin Hames averages 10.7 assists per set, the fifth-highest mark in the conference.

Defense is where this Cornhusker team really shines, with two All-Big Ten first-teamers in freshman libero/defensive specialist Lexi Rodriguez and senior middle blocker Lauren Stivrins leading the charge.

Rodriguez, who also was named the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year and to the All-Freshman Team, averages 4.48 digs per set and finished with the third-best mark during conference play, while Stivrins was named to the All-Big Ten first team for fourth consecutive season and 1.14 blocks and 2. 48 kills per set.

Senior middle blocker Kayla Caffey also is a big factor at the net, averaging 2.97 kills on a .377 clip and 1.12 blocks per set.

While the two teams play every year during conference action, they also have some history in the postseason. The Cornhuskers eliminated the Illini in the Final Four in 2018 before ultimately falling to No. 1 Stanford in the national championship.

For redshirt junior setter Diana Brown, one of four members of that 2018 squad who is still playing at Illinois, she still remembers the feeling of watching the Cornhuskers celebrate on the court after the Illini let a two-set lead slip away.

“I think it’s about revenge,” Brown said. “I think that the tournament has a little bit different vibe and that anyone can win on any given day, and so the preparation and just the mindset that we go in is just any day could be your last, so leave it all out on the court.”

Nebraska is one of the most storied programs in college volleyball history, as it has won five national championships, most recently in 2017, and is competing in its 37th postseason tournament appearance, the most in NCAA history.

Despite the Illini’s opponent’s decorated past, Brown still approaches Thursday’s match with a cool, calm and collected mindset.

“There’s always gonna be an opponent on the other side,” Brown said. “Yes, we have played this opponent twice. We have done things that have not worked, and then we have done things that have worked.

“The preparation is kind of the same, but the mindset is still in tournament mode where, like I said, any day can be your last so don’t regret anything.”

 

@JacksonJanes3

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