BREAKING: Illinois volleyball headed to the Final Four

Beth Prince, Jordyn Poulter and Blayke Hranicka sat on the bench laughing as the clock on the Huff Hall scoreboard ticked under the 30-minute pregame mark.

Two hours and fourteen minutes later, the three would meet again, but piled in a group hug and accompanied by their teammates, celebrating the Illinois volleyball program’s fourth ever Final Four berth.

“I don’t know what to say in this moment here,” head coach Chris Tamas said, in tears after the game. “A lot of work in the making. Just really proud of these guys. When I first came here, and the look on everyone’s face like ‘where do we go from here?’ and now here we are two years (later).”

The atmosphere was loud and rowdy in the gymnasium, but on the court, the Illini were calm as the team took down Big Ten foe Wisconsin in a four-set match.

Practically 24 hours earlier, Poulter sat in the converted classroom-turned-press room and answered “100 percent, yes” when asked about whether or not the team would relish in the opportunity to play the Badgers come the Elite 8.

“I think to celebrate that not only without people who are directly in what we do with our program but with all of our fans that were there, we had a ton of alumni back, it’s just a very special moment,” Poulter said. “For that to be our last game at Huff and to end with a W, that’ll be something I take with me forever.”

The senior’s wish of playing Wisconsin again quickly came true as the Badgers cruised past San Diego with a 3-0 match victory and the Big Ten Elite 8 showdown was set.

The two teams met twice earlier this season, with Wisconsin being one of the Illini’s three losses in the season back on Oct. 3. Ten days later, Illinois headed to Madison and avenged the loss, tying the season record 1-1.

In front of a sold-out crowd, with a majority spirited in orange, Wisconsin put points on the board first.

However, Illinois turned to junior Jacqueline Quade early, and her second kill of the night gave the Illini their first lead at 3-2. Illinois didn’t look back and Wisconsin was forced to call its first timeout down 15-11, after a five-kill effort by Quade and two service aces helped give the Illini a comfortable lead. Only one play later Jordyn Poulter set the ball up for Quade’s six kill of the night to force a second Badger timeout.

“The confidence that the coaches instill in us and that we instill in each other everyday at practice carries through the games,” senior Ali Bastianelli said. “We are very confident in each other, and who knows if two years ago I could say that.”

What became a fast-moving first set quickly slowed down, and the Badgers took advantage going on a four-point swing that forced the set to 16-14 thanks to a Molly Haggerty kill.

Illinois took a quick timeout and regained composure to, once again, extend its lead. Not before long the team found themselves at match point up 24-18. After a service error by Quade, the Badgers would hand the Illini a set one victory with a service error of their own.

The second set began similar to the first, with both teams trading points early. However, this time it was Wisconsin who started to pull away. With a quieter Quade, the Illini offensive attack struggled to get going. The Badgers relied on several attack errors by Megan Cooney to extend the team’s lead to 15-11.

The Badgers controlled the momentum the rest of the way to easily take the second set 25-14.

In set three, Wisconsin fell back to its set-one woes, having to take a timeout early down 7-4. The Badgers’ Haggerty had two attack errors that helped the Illini gain the lead.

The Badgers hung around until two important back-to-back kills from Loberg and Duello brought Wisconsin within one at a score of 18-17.

Another costly serve that went out of bounds for the Badgers brought the Illini to match point, but a service error of their own followed by an attack error by Bastianelli made the game a 24-22 contest.

In a repeat of the Illini’s first set victory, Haggerty committed a service error and Illinois picked up a 25-22 win to take a 2-1 advantage over Wisconsin.

While the players met in the huddle before the beginning of set four, the coaches followed with a huddle of their own. Coming onto the court with smiles, Illinois quickly got out to a 3-1 lead thanks to two kills by Quade.

“We kind of have this saying: ‘if you want it, go take it,’” Poulter said. “We talked about if we serve them aggressive they won’t be able to run their offense with their middles like they want to.”

Illinois grabbed a large 16-8 lead but the Badgers refused to go away, going on a big four-point run in the fourth set to gain back momentum. A kill by Tionna Williams and then an attack error by Quade gave Wisconsin new life toward the end of the set, making the score 22-20. The score lessened and Illinois found themselves with only a one-point advantage at 24-23.

With the crowd cheering, the Badgers sent what would be their final set of the season over the net, only to have Poulter set up Prince for what was the kill point that will send the Illini to Minneapolis for the semifinal round.

“This is the sweet one … but we’re not done yet,” Tamas said. “Just proud of my team and everyone else involved in the program.”

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