Illinois tops Louisville, heads to Sweet 16


Austin Yattoni

The Illini celebrate after scoring a point during the match against the Cardinals in the second round of the NCAA Tournament at Huff Hall on Saturday.

By Brain Binz, Staff writer

After breezing through Eastern Michigan during the first round of the NCAA tournament at Huff Hall, the No. 1-seed Illinois volleyball team faced a more challenging test in round two.

Fresh off a three-game sweep of Dayton, the Louisville Cardinals found themselves in a position very similar to one the Illini were in last year: on the road with a chance to steal a spot in the Sweet 16 from the hosts.

The Illini opened the match with a 25-22 set-one victory, where their defense held the Cardinals to just a .098 hitting percentage. Despite the strong defense, Illinois struggled offensively, hitting just a .200 hitting percentage.

Those offensive struggles continued into the second set where they hit a .275 percentage and lost the set 28-26.

Illinois’ third set resembled the first more than the second, with the Illini building an early lead before coasting to a 25-17 win. Illinois’ offense got back on track in the third set, racking up 15 kills on a .355 hitting percentage. The offensive turnaround was led by junior outside hitter Jacqueline Quade, who posted six of her team-high 14 kills in the third frame.

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    “We really settled in; the first couple sets wasn’t us,” Quade said.

    The Illini finally punched their ticket to the Sweet 16 with a 25-18 win in the fourth set, where they built an early lead again and never relinquished it.

    “We kinda wear on teams,” said head coach Chris Tamas. “I wasn’t a fan of our setups to start, but once we settled in, they couldn’t put the ball to the floor.”

    Sophomore libero Morgan O’Brien was all over the floor defensively, coming up with 25 digs to lead on the day.

    “It’s our youngest unit on the court,” Tamas said. “To be in those big moments and putting the ball where it needs to be, it’s a big deal.”

    In the two games Illinois has played in the postseason, it has taken different routes to victory. Against Eastern Michigan, the team relied on offense, but with Louisville, the defense led the way. The Illini shut down the Cardinals offense, despite the Caridnals’ huge advantage in attack attempts, to the tune of a 67 percent sideout percentage. On top of that, Illinois also set a season high with 19 team blocks, compared to Louisville’s five.

    “We are a team with so many dimensions that if we are off in one category, like if the pass isn’t doing well, the hitters can pick up the slack, and vice versa,” Quade said. “Having that versatility was huge for us this year.”

    It was another convincing performance from No. 1-seed Illinois in front of the Huff Hall crowd, one that raised the intensity of both teams.

    “In the ACC, you don’t find a lot of environments like that,” said Louisville’s Molly Sauer. “Playing in front of that crowd honestly gave us a lot of energy.”

    The Illini now have back-to-back 30-win seasons and will play another weekend at home. The team is now just two games away from a Final Four appearance, potentially their first since finishing runner-up at the tournament in 2011.

    “We’re not necessarily armpits over the net; we just have really smart volleyball players,” Tamas said. “There’s lots of ways to do it, and we’re proving our way is pretty good.”


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