CHAMPAIGN (WCIA) — Illinois volleyball has been to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament six times in the last decade, but for most of this year’s team, the postseason is a whole new experience. Much less the Sweet Sixteen.
“After (20)19 we turned over a big part of our starters,” Illinois head coach Chris Tamas said. “We had five starters we had to figure out replacements for.”
Just four current members of Illinois volleyball were part of the team that made a run to the Final Four.
Keeping their composure on the floor of the reigning national champions during the first weekend was no easy task. The Illini (22-11) upset No. 7 seed Kentucky in the second round on Saturday to advance, being able to lean on those that have been there before was key in moving on.
“I don’t think it was different than what I was expecting, I was expecting a lot of pressure,” Illinois sophomore outside hitter Raina Terry said. “I was expecting it to be loud and energetic and that was exactly what it was.”
“Definitely rely on all their leadership,” Tamas said. “I think they’re a common force on the court that just helps everyone else settle in and play their game.”
“I think our team, and myself too, we thrive in pressure situations,” said Terry. “That definitely showed this weekend.”
A familiar opponent stands in the way of their postseason aspirations now in Nebraska. Megan Cooney, Taylor Kuper and Kylie Bruder all played the last time the Illini beat the Huskers in 2018. They’ve lost six straight to the Big Red since, including getting swept twice this season in Champaign and Lincoln.
“Of course they have great hitters and people who have been to the Final Four and the finals and all that but I think right now from last weekend, we’re kind of on our peak so I hope that keeps going,” Illinois junior setter Diana Brown said. “And we all understand this mental blockage of, ‘Oh it’s Nebraska.’ No, it’s another opponent on the other side of the net and we can take care of them.”
First serve between Illinois and Nebraska is set for 8:30 p.m. on Thursday night in Austin, Texas on ESPNU. With a win, the Illini would move on the Elite Eight for just the third time since the tournament was expanded to 64 teams in 1998.