Volleyball: Illini Stay Alive and Advance to NCAA Sweet Sixteen


The Illini volleyball team opened the first round of the NCAA Tournament with first- and second-round wins – over Southern Illinois and Louisville – to advance to the Sweet Sixteen.

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Friday: Illinois, 3 v. Southern Illinois, 0

In their first meeting since the 2014 season, and the Salukis’ first NCAA Tournament appearance, the Illini took all three sets with scores of 25-19, 25-15, and 26-24. Despite being tournament rookies, the Salukis came out strong and grab momentum early in the first set before the Illini tied it at six a piece. The next 13 points saw five ties and six lead changes before the Illini tallied the final six points – five coming from the serve of senior defensive specialist Julia Conard – and the first set.

The Illini jumped out to an early 5-0 lead to start the second set, and never really lost momentum.

A service ace from freshman setter Jordyn Poulter and a big kill from junior middle blocker Katie Stadick put the Illini up 16-10, before the Orange and Blue took the next four of five points and a 20-11 lead.

Senior outside hitter Jocelynn Birks gave the Illini the win with a set-ending kill – one of her 11 on the match.

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After allowing the Saulkis to get out to a 5-0 start to the third set, the Illini battled back to make it 8-7.  A dig from sophomore defensive specialist Brandi Donnelly and back-to-back digs from Stadick and Poulter tied the set at nine a piece. SIU strung together a 7-1 run, which the Illini promptly answered with a 7-1 run of their own – led by Birks with four kills – to put Illinois ahead by one at 19-18. The final points saw five more ties before a huge kill from Birks ended the match, sending the Illini to the second round of the tourney.

“Coming into the match when we were scouting [SIU], we thought they would be a really tough team for us to play,” said head coach Kevin Hambly. “I thought we did a pretty good job of handling their tempo. It was very different than what we have seen all year.”

The Illini advanced to the second round to face hosts Louisville on Saturday.

Saturday: Illini, 3 vs. Louisville, 1

Birks led the Illini with a huge game as she hit .426 and tied her career-high with 26 kills. On top of that she added 10 digs, and her 56th career double-double.

“Jocelynn has been a leader for us all year,” said Hambly. “She doesn’t want the season to end, none of them do, but this is the best I have seen her lead the group.”

“She doesn’t want the season to end, none of them do, but this is the best I have seen her lead the group.”

Head Coach Kevin Hambly on Senior Jocelynn Birks

Louisville grabbed the momentum immediately in the first set, pinning the Illini down with an 11-4 lead right out of the gate.  The Illini closed to within 5 with a Birks kill, but UL was able to string together a 7-2 run to end the set 25-15.

Junior opposite hitter Naya Crittenden started off the second set with back-to-back kills as both teams traded points. Tied at 5-5, the Illini strung together a 6-2 run giving them an 11-7 advantage before Louisville could battle back to tie it at 14-14.

The next eight points would see seven more ties before three straight points from Birks, junior outside hitter Michelle Strizak, and Poulter would capture the set.

The back-and-forth continued into the third set. After an 8-8 tie, a Louisville attack error gave the Illini the lead – and they wouldn’t relinquish it.

UL would try, and came within one at 12-11, but the Illini held them off. Five straight points – two coming from Birks kills – put more space between the two. The Cardinals staged a mini 3-0 rally, but a final run closed the set for the Illini 25-18.

Going into the final set, the Illini looked to close out the match and advance to the Sweet Sixteen.

The Orange and Blue jumped out to a 4-2 lead before Louisville tied it at five a piece. A kill from Stadick, followed by a block from Strizak and freshman middle block Ali Bastianelli gave Illinois the lead – and they would hold it for the remainder of the match. Kills from Poulter and Strizak extended the Illini lead to 16-11. Followed by subsequent Louisville errors, Illinois had a 21-15 lead heading into the final points.

Louisville mounted a 6-1 run to close the gap at 22-21, but a Stadick kill, coupled with back-to-back blocks from Bastianelli and Poulter gave the Illini the win.

“They were tough,” said Hambly of Louisville, “and in this place it was a battle. I think the key for us was managing the emotions of the event in this place. I thought it got away from us in the first set, but we started to calm down and play a lot better until the very end.”

The Illini will meet Big Ten rival Minnesota on Friday, December 11th in Des Moines, Iowa.