Team set for NCAA tournament after win

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Austin Yattoni

Illinois setter Jordyn Poulter (1) and middle blocker Ali Bastianelli (5) try to block the ball during the match against Purdue at Huff Hall on Saturday, Nov. 24, 2018.

By Brian Binz, Staff Writer

Illinois athletics hasn’t had a lot to cheer about in recent years.

With a football program that’s gone 9-27 over the last three years and a men’s basketball team that’s setting school records for postseason futility, the “revenue sports” supposed to be the face of a university’s athletics have vastly underachieved.

However, on the same night the Illini football team lost to conference and in-state rival Northwestern for the fourth time in a row and after a winless trip to Maui for the men’s basketball team, the Illinois volleyball team finished off one of the most successful regular seasons for an Illini team since the 2005 men’s basketball team went through the whole season with just one loss.

Illinois volleyball defeated Purdue in four sets, putting the finishing touches on a 28-3 season that will likely end with the Illini claiming a No. 1 seed in the upcoming NCAA tournament. With that accomplishment comes a number of benefits, including another round of games at Huff Hall for the senior class honored against Purdue.

As sophomores, the current seniors missed the NCAA tournament, and in the offseason, they lost head coach Kevin Hambly to Stanford. Two years later, they’ve done something that hasn’t been done at Illinois since the turn of the century: losing only three regular-season games.

“We just kept on going along,” said head coach Chris Tamas. “We’ve had that workmanlike mentality since I’ve gotten here, and they keep responding to every challenge that we give them.”

The Illini headed into senior night against the Boilermakers, having already beaten them earlier in the year on the road. The teams’ second matchup looked a lot like first, and the Illini won again in four sets after being tied 1-1 after two.

Familiar faces were at the head of the Illini’s success. Junior outside hitter Jacqueline Quade led the team with 22 kills, followed by senior hitter Beth Prince’s 14. Purdue’s Sherridan Atkinson led the game with 26 kills on a scorching .423 hitting percentage, but the next highest Boilermaker had just 10 kills.

Senior setter Jordyn Poulter eclipsed 50 assists with 52 to go with three kills, seven digs and two block assists.

Defensively, sophomore libero Morgan O’Brien led the team with 25 digs, and Quade completed a double-double with 12 digs as well. Senior middle blocker Ali Bastianelli added to her school record with a team-high four blocks to pace the Illini’s front line of defense.

For Bastianelli, the win was the culmination of a turnaround she may not have even been a part of. She said she wasn’t sure what the fate of Illinois volleyball would be after former head coach Hambly left the program two years ago.

“I wasn’t sure I should stay, but it worked out,” Bastianelli said. “I gotta say it did.”

Poulter said earlier in the week she didn’t think the game would be very emotional, but it was easier said than done for the All-American setter.

“I wasn’t planning on crying,” Poulter said. “But when you realize how much really goes into what we do here and all the people behind us, the years of sacrifice our families have made and the coaching staff in their lives and sacrifices in our personal lives, the people (who) come out on Fridays and Saturday nights to support us … there’s definitely other things people could be doing, but they choose to be here with us.”

Now all the Illini can do is watch as the selection committee decides if they get one of the top four seeds, which would allow the Illini to stay within the confines of Huff Hall in front of fans who packed the stands despite the school being on Thanksgiving break. No. 1-ranked BYU and No. 3-ranked Minnesota both lost last week, increasing the Illini’s chances at a higher ranking, but they won’t know for sure until they see it at the watch party at Tamas’ house.

“We just hope our body of work shows we deserve a top-four seed,” Tamas said.

Even if the Illini miss out on the top four on Sunday despite their No. 4 RPI and AVCA ranking, Tamas isn’t worried about how his team will fare on the road after losing one match all year at Minnesota.

“If not, we’ve done just as well on the road,” Tamas said. “Matter of fact, this season we’ve done better on the road than at home; I’ll take this team any place any time.”

In Bastianelli’s words, “We’re not done yet.”

@ByBinz

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