LEXINGTON, Ky. — In what is becoming a nearly annual event, the Fighting Illini volleyball team has advanced to the round of 16 in the NCAA Volleyball Championships.
Illinois defeated host and No. 7 seed Kentucky 3-1 (25-22, 20-25, 25-10, 25-21) to reach the Sweet 16 for the tenth time in the last 14 seasons.
A strong service game helped the Illini keep the Wildcats (25-5), who are the reigning NCAA Champions, off balance the entire match.
Sophomore Raina Kelly led Illinois (22-11) with a career-high 27 kills. Junior setter Diana Brown had 52 assists and 16 digs.
Brown says the Illini have taken pride in their serving all season.
“Just to have that comfort level behind the (service) line, we have some of the toughest servers in the nation,” Brown said. “When we get the serve, it’s kind of like, we all know, all right, let’s lock in.”
In addition to a talented Wildcats squad, Illinois also had to deal with a hostile crowd. But head coach Chris Tamas says that is nothing new for his team.
“We beat Penn State at Penn State in front of a hostile crowd. We beat Purdue at Purdue in front of a hostile crowd,” Tamas said. “And so, for us, it’s almost a comfort thing, where it’s like, ‘all right you want to cheer against us?’ That kind of feeds us a little bit.”
The Illini outhit the Wildcats .331 to .208. In addition to Kelly’s 27 kills, grad student Megan Cooney added 17 and junior Kennedy Collins chipped in with 10. Senior Taylor Kuper paced Illinois with 23 digs and three service aces.
The victory was also career win no. 100 for Illinois coach Tamas, all of which have come in his five seasons leading the Illini.
Illinois will face a familiar foe in the regional semifinal when they take on conference rival Nebraska on Thursday in Austin, Tex. The Cornhuskers swept Illinois 3-0 in both of their regular season meetings. No. 2 overall seed Texas will play No. 15 seed Washington in the other semifinal.