Illinois to play in Pac-12/Big Ten Challenge

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Illinois to play in Pac-12/Big Ten Challenge

Jonathan Bonaguro The daily illini
The Illini celebrate after scoring against Tennessee Sunday at Huff Hall. The Illini won 3-2. No. 6-ranked Illinois will play No. 16 Washington on Friday and Colorado Saturday.

Jonathan Bonaguro The daily illini The Illini celebrate after scoring against Tennessee Sunday at Huff Hall. The Illini won 3-2. No. 6-ranked Illinois will play No. 16 Washington on Friday and Colorado Saturday.

Jonathan Bonaguro

Jonathan Bonaguro The daily illini The Illini celebrate after scoring against Tennessee Sunday at Huff Hall. The Illini won 3-2. No. 6-ranked Illinois will play No. 16 Washington on Friday and Colorado Saturday.

Jonathan Bonaguro

Jonathan Bonaguro

Jonathan Bonaguro The daily illini The Illini celebrate after scoring against Tennessee Sunday at Huff Hall. The Illini won 3-2. No. 6-ranked Illinois will play No. 16 Washington on Friday and Colorado Saturday.

By Gabby Hajduk, Staff Writer

“Fifth-Set Magic”

Three hours and 204 points later, match point came from the serve of Tennessee volleyball’s Madison Coulter. With just five reception errors on the day, the Illinois volleyball team stayed poised as senior Caroline Welsh cleanly received the potential final point and passed it to redshirt freshman Diana Brown.

While senior stars Jacqueline Quade and Ashlyn Fleming stood right beside Brown, she set freshman Kennedy Collins as the young pair looked to close out their Huff Hall debuts with a win. Collins took the opportunity to make her first home match special as she drilled the ball off Tennessee’s hands to win the fifth set 15-8.

The seven-point difference in the fifth set does not perfectly capture how close the second match between No. 6 Illinois and No. 19 Tennessee was. Three out of the five sets were decided by no more than four points.

While the match took a physical and mental toll on the Illini and the Vols, both teams had been in that exact position before, just two nights earlier, against each other.

On Friday night, Illinois opened up its season at Tennessee, dropping the first two sets but using a comeback effort to take the next three sets and the match.

Tennessee came close to redemption on Sunday night as they took the third and fourth sets after Illinois won the first two. However, the Illini shut those hopes down and brought their “fifth-set magic,” said head coach Chris Tamas.

The pressure-filled weekend worked in the Illini’s favor as they take a 2-0 record into the Big Ten/Pac-12 Challenge in Iowa this weekend. While early wins matter, the resiliency the Illini showed in crunch time matters more long-term.

“It’s always good to beat a ranked opponent both home and away,” Tamas said. “I think it gives them the confidence that they can perform under these types of moments. It’s not always easy to be put there under bright lights with 4,000 screaming fans. It’s difficult to do. To get that play in under our belt is a huge deal, and hopefully, we can be one week better next week.”

Team diversity fosters success and growth

In his third season with the Illini, Tamas is still handling roster turnover and the age gap between the majority of his team. On Sunday, three seniors and a junior started along with three freshmen. While injuries have limited the gameday lineup, Tamas believes every player has the ability to step up when needed.

“I think it’s huge for the team just to come together whether it’s the same lineup next week or not,” Tamas said. “I think everyone has a role on this team, no matter whether it’s on the bench or on the court. They’re competitive every day, and they are a great team, and it’s fun to work with them. I’m proud of what we’re building here right now.”

After losing key players from the 2018 campaign, setter Jordyn Poulter and middle blocker Ali Bastianelli, Tamas knew some underclassmen were going to make an immediate impact. Over the weekend, those players were setter Diana Brown and middle blockers Kyla Swanson and Kennedy Collins, who played opposite on Sunday.

Brown, who redshirted last season, used the 2018 season to learn from Poulter and put in extra work in the gym. While Brown is grateful to have witnessed Poulter’s Illini legacy, she still longed every day to see action on the court.

“I really appreciate the leadership and role (Poulter) presented to me last year, but, I love playing,” Brown said. “I’m a competitor, so it was really hard to sit on the bench. Jordyn was great. She was everything you want in a setter. I am trying to be different but at the same time trying to be her because she was awesome. She really made a name for herself, but I’m just trying to be Diana Brown, whatever that is.”

Along with Brown, Collins and Swanson have also been working to create their own legacy behind Bastianelli and Fleming. While Swanson saw a lot of court time, Collins stood out with her nine kills, including the match-winning kill.

Collins attributed her poise on match point to the competition level she sees every day in practice. That competition level each Illini faces every day stems from upperclassmen like Quade, Fleming  and senior Megan Cooney.

While the freshmen have impressed early, Tamas believes the majority of in-game success comes when the upperclassmen are on point because they “exude confidence” to the younger players.

“There’s that ownership in that group, and they do need to step up when times get tough,” Tamas said. “When they get quiet, I think we get a bit down, so we have to make sure that they keep it going.”

Quade, Fleming and Cooney combined for 44 of the team’s 59 total kills on Sunday; Quade paced the Illini with 22.

Pac-12/Big Ten Challenge

The Illini will remember their 10-set battle with Tennessee for a while, but this week, the focus will be on the Pac-12/Big Ten Challenge. The tournament hosted in Iowa City starts on Friday, and Illinois will play No. 16 Washington at 4 p.m. Illinois will then face Colorado at 4 p.m. on Saturday.

Illinois faced both Washington and Colorado last season in the same tournament. The Illini won both matches, sweeping Colorado and dropping just one set to Washington.

No. 16 Washington heads into this weekend at 2-1 after losing to No. 20 Hawaii on Sunday. Colorado sits at 3-0 after only playing unranked teams. The Buffs will play Iowa on Friday before their matchup with Illinois.

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