Illinois has, for lack of a better term, stayed under the radar this season.
Until last weekend.
The Illini (22-11) are one of the two unseeded teams (Kansas is the other) to reach the round of 16 in the NCAA women’s volleyball tournament. They finished seventh in the Big Ten at 12-8 and didn’t made it into the AVCA Poll until November 1.
And when the regular season ended, they were back out of the poll and No. 30 in the NCAA RPI.
But the tournament marks a new life, and Illinois responded in a big way. Now, after recording the biggest upset of the first weekend, Illinois will get a rematch with Nebraska, at Texas on Thursday.
Illinois opened the tournament by beating West Virginia in four and then stunned Kentucky, the defending national-champion Kentucky, on its home floor, winning 25-22, 20-25, 25-10, 25-21.
“I’ve got a team full of competitors,” fifth-year coach Chris Tamas said. “We played our best volleyball, and that’s what you need to do this time of year.”
Illinois, once 12-7 and 4-4 in the B1G, is obviously playing its best. A look at its schedule shows quite an up-and-down ride.
The Illini defeated UC Santa Barbara, host Milwaukee, and Valparaiso in its first three matches this season, but then lost at home to the PAC-12’s Washington and Colorado. They then beat Omaha and SMU, but lost to host Creighton before finishing nonconference play at Illinois State with victories over Missouri, Illinois State, and North Texas.
Once Big Ten play started, well, Illinois was unpredictable at best. It won at Iowa in five, came home to beat Northwestern in five, and then stunned then-No. 4 Purdue in five in West Lafayette.
But the B1G schedule being what it is, anything can change in a minute, and it did for Illinois. It lost in four at Wisconsin, lost at home in five to Purdue just five days after the previous match, and then lost in four at Wisconsin.
Illinois then swept Iowa but got swept at Nebraska. It was time for a midseason re-set and some tinkering with the lineup.
“We were banged up a little bit midway through the season and had to figure out a lineup that worked,” Tamas said.
That included making Raina Terry the second outside hitter. Terry, a sophomore from Marengo, Ohio, leads the team with 436 kills, averages 3.52/set, has a team-high 54 aces, has 59 blocks, and averages 2.03 digs.
“We looked at the numbers and knew we needed something out of the back row, and we switched her to the 2 spot so she could swing more freely out of the back row, and she had some huge kills (against Kentucky).”
Indeed. Terry led with 27 kills, hit .321, and had two blocks and eight digs.
“That was when she put it all together, and it was great to see,” Tamas said.
Graduate-student Megan Cooney — the only Illinois player on the All-Big Ten first-team — has 376 kills, junior Jessica Nunge has 313, and junior middle Kennedy Collins has 277 to go with a team-high 125 blocks, 18 solo. Junior middle Kyla Swanson, second with 103 blocks, also has 144 kills.
“We’ve relied on steady performances,” Tamas said. “Cooney’s been steady for us not just this year but for her whole career, so we relied on her a ton. We had a lot of good performances over the course of the season to get us here, and we knew once we got here it was the right time to get healthy, and here we go.”
Libero Taylor Kuper, a senior, made the All-Big Ten first team last spring but this season was left off the list. She averages 4.57 digs/set and ranks fifth in the Big Ten in a conference loaded with outstanding liberos. She also has 50 aces. Against Kentucky, she had 23 digs, nine assists, and all three of the Illinois aces.
Setter Diana Brown, a 6-foot junior who averages 10.41 assists, also seems to get lost in the conference, although she ranks sixth in the B1G in assists. She had 50 kills, is second to Kuper at 2.42/digs, and is one of those players one has to see to fully appreciate.
“She’s a force at the net, she’s got a lot of range, and she’s been really working the last couple of years at running the show,” Tamas said.
Against Kentucky, Brown had kills in both her tries, 52 assists, 15 digs, and two blocks, one solo.
The last time Illinois went this far was 2018, when it made the national semifinals behind setter Jordyn Poulter, a once-in-a-generation player who led the USA to the Olympic gold medal this past summer.
“Those were big shoes to fill.” Tamas said. “The whole mindset with her was you’re not Jordyn, I don’t expect you to be, you just have to become the best Diana Brown you need to be.”
Back to that schedule. After that loss to Nebraska, Illinois beat Northwestern, Michigan, Rutgers (needing to go five against a team that finished winless in the league), and Penn State. Back-to-back three-set losses against Nebraska and Minnesota followed.
The Illini went 4-2 to end the regular season, sweeping Indiana, getting swept by Ohio State, then sweeping Indiana and Maryland before losing at Michigan but sweeping Michigan State.
“The Big Ten was that deep this year,” said Tamas, who was an assistant at Nebraska before taking over at Illinois. “And this is by far the deepest the conference has ever been … It’s just one of those years where you really had to show up. Anything that was over .500 in the conference, you were a really good team, and we’re kind of the team that’s proving that now in the tournament.”
Nebraska clearly has the upper hand heading into Thursday. The pro-Texas crowd in Gregory Hall will certainly be rooting for Illinois.
“It’ll be fun,” Tamas said.
Tamas tie-ins of note in this tournament: By ousting Kentucky, he beat another former Nebraska assistant in coach Craig Skinner. Another former Nebraska assistant is Dani Busboom Kelly, whose Louisville team is unbeaten and the No. 1 seed. And Tamas and Pittsburgh coach Dan Fisher, whose team is the No. 3 seed, are both from Santa Barbara and both set at Pacific.