CHAMPAIGN — Something had to give in this post-season volleyball match between two Big Ten behemoths.
The Fighting Illini of Illinois and the Wisconsin Badgers, two perennial powers in the best conference in the sport, went head-to-head with a Final Four berth on the line in the Champaign Regional final on Saturday afternoon at Huff Hall in Champaign.
The Illini and Badgers, who had split their first two meetings of the season, went head-to-head in their third matchup of the season, and even though each team had won on the other’s home court, this encounter had much more at stake.
Illinois emerged victorious and advanced to the Final Four for the first time since the 2011 season and the fourth time in program history with a 3-1 victory over the Badgers in sets that went 25-19, 15-25, 25-22 and 25-23.
Illinois junior outside hitter Jacqueline Quade picked up where she left off in the first game of the regional against Marquette by recording eight kills in the opening set against the Badgers. Quade has been one of the anchors on the Illinois front line and spoke about her sizzling start to the match.
“I certainly hope that I can start out matches like I did today, but sooner or later, teams will have an answer for it, so I’ve just got to battle through that and maintain it throughout the match,” Quade said of what she feels is needed by her to get the team out to a fast start.
Illinois went on to win the first set 25-19 and appeared to be in control in the second set as well, but the Badgers, who were led by their front court tandem of Molly Haggerty and Dana Rettke, stormed back to tie the match at 1-1 with a 25-15 victory in that second set.
“That second set was on us, and we didn’t do some of the things that we normally do and rectified those in the remainder of the match,” senior Ali Bastianelli said after the match on their sluggish performance in the second set. Bastianelli, who had 11 kills and hit .318 over the course of the entire match.
In the third set, Illinois regained their composure from the lopsided second set to go up 2-1 with a 25-22 win. The Badgers would stay within striking distance of the Illini but could not overcome the strong net presence that head coach Chris Tamas’ team provides.
“We’ve got this saying that is ‘you want it, go take it’, and we just decided to up our intensity and finish the job that we set out to do. We’ve been on a good roll this season, and don’t want to stop now,” senior Jordyn Poulter said following the match about the mindset in the final two sets to close out the match.
Tamas, who came to Illinois in 2016 after then head coach Kevin Hambly took the Stanford job, was a former assistant at Nebraska, who is known for their postseason success, having been to three straight Final Fours.
“Two years ago, when we came out here (to Champaign), we looked at each other and thought where do we go from here? We have an unbelievable team of people throughout this program, and while this win is undeniably sweet, we by no means are finished, and we will celebrate this one but also know that there is much more left to play for,” a very emotional Tamas said in his introductory remarks following the match.
Illinois (32-3) closed out the match with a 25-23 victory in the fourth set, on the heels of Quade, Bastianelli and Beth Prince, who had several key kills in that set. Prince finished with nine kills on the afternoon.
The 3:00 pm first serve, which was the opening match of the four regional finals, suited Tamas just fine, meaning they could sit back and watch everything else unfold.
“The nice thing about us playing first is that we can watch everybody else play, especially the Nebraska-Oregon match, which we will get the winner of. Coming from Nebraska, I know a lot of what they run and how they set up, but regardless of who we play, it will be a battle”, Tamas added about the matchup on the other side of the bracket in the Final Four.
Nebraska defeated Oregon in straight sets (25-22, 25-23, 25-17) to advance to their fourth consecutive national finals. The Cornhuskers are the defending national champions and defeated the Ducks, who took down the No. 2 overall seed Minnesota Golden Gophers and negated and opportunity for Minnesota to play in the Final Four just minutes from their campus.
On the other side of the bracket, BYU defeated Texas 3-0 and the late game featured No. 1 overall seed Stanford taking on the Big Ten’s other team in the field, the Penn State Nittany Lions.
Illinois and Nebraska will square off on Thursday evening at the Target Center in Minneapolis with a start time still to be determined.