SAN ANTONIO, Texas -- When the last ball finally hit the floor to end one of the more incredible final points in NCAA Division I Women’s Volleyball Championships history, Illinois didn’t so much as celebrate as it seemed to exhale.

The 25-27, 25-18, 25-22, 18-25, 15-10 victory advanced the Illini into the title game for the first time and put an end to a dramatic run by USC, which was forced to go to five sets for the third time in seven days.

Illinois outlasts USC in five sets

Colleen Ward had 27 kills and Illinois advanced to its first championship match in school history by upsetting USC in five sets in the NCAA semifinals on Thursday night.
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“Illinois just beat us,” USC coach Mick Haley said. “They played a little bit better than we did at the right time. What do you say to that? Congratulations. We did as well as we could do. Everybody gave everything.”

Especially on that last point, one that lasted more than one minute and went back and forth across the net a ridiculous 20 times with ferocious swings and great digs and diving pickups by both teams before USC junior Katie Fuller ended it with a hitting error.

“I thought the last point of the match defined the whole match in itself,” Ilinois coach Kevin Hambly said. “It showed how tough a match that was, how big of a battle it was. I thought it was two very good teams playing high-level volleyball. And we were fortunate in the fifth to make some plays at the end.”

The last set was tied 9-9 before Illinois pulled away and into Saturday’s championship match against UCLA. And in that fifth set, just like in the third, the Illini rode the masterful jump serving and tenacious defense of its best offensive player, senior Colleen Ward.

Ward, who led Illinois with 27 kills, went back to serve in the third set with her team trailing 22-20. Before the game ended, she put USC on its heels repeatedly with her one-handed, high-toss jump serve, came up with three big digs, and had an explosive kill from the back row that put her team up 24-22.

USC, which rallied twice last weekend at Hawaii, beating the home team in five sets and then Pepperdine in five to advance to the national semifinals, seemed set up to win again when it scored the last five points to win the fourth set.

But in the fifth, freshman right side Liz McMahon had four kills in Illinois’ first five points and then later came up big again with a big hit to make it 11-9, which coincided with Ward serving again.

“The fifth set is always a completely different game,” McMahon said. “Everyone’s in a totally different mindset. I think Ward and Bartsch made plays earlier in the match so USC had to really focus on them. I think down the stretch Annie [Luhrsen] did a great job getting me the ball.”

I thought the last point of the match defined the whole match in itselfIt showed how tough a match that was, how big of a battle it was. I thought it was two very good teams playing high-level volleyball. And we were fortunate in the fifth to make some plays at the end.
-- Illinois coach Kevin Hambly

“I thought at those points in the match we needed some tough serving,” Ward said. “Our blockers did such a great job, so it was really easy to play defense around it.”

Ward seemed to be especially dialed in on her serve.

“I just toss it as high as I can and just go after it,” she said. “Nothing really special.”

Ward is becoming quite a story in this tournament. The transfer from Florida had her best match in the regional final at Florida and continued to be an all-around wrecking crew against USC. When asked if her arm was tired, she smiled and nodded.

“A little bit. Yeah.”

But she wasn’t alone in the effort. Senior teammate Michelle Bartsch added 22 kills and four blocks, freshman Anna Dorn had five blocks, junior Erin Johnson had 12 kills and seven blocks and McMahon 10 kills. Sophomore Jennifer Beltran 32 digs on a night when USC star Alex Jupiter had 32 kills.

“I think the difference in the match was we had more balance,” Hambly said. “We had more than just Jupiter. We had Ward, we had Bartsch, and then Lizzie stepped up, and Erin Johnson was great tonight. We’ve got balance. We held their other players down, except for [Lauren] Wiliams. She went off on us [ for 18 kills]. And Jupiter, we held her to .241, which is OK. But I thought that was the difference, that we had more people we could go to. In that fifth set we weren’t as worn down.”

Illinois and UCLA will practice Friday before squaring off for all the marbles on Saturday. UCLA will be trying to win its fourth title and first since winning back-to-back championships in 1990 and 1991. Illinois has never been this far.

“They’re very different than what we just saw,” Hambly said of UCLA. “USC is a high-ball team with a big middle who could get up and over us, while UCLA’s going to be fast everywhere and they’re going to challenge us. It’s going to be tough and we’re going to have to play a whole different style against UCLA. It’s going to be interesting to see how fast we can turn it around and how long it takes us to adjust to that.”