Dec. 6, 2008

Courtesy of Illinois

Champaign, Ill. - Laura DeBruler had 18 kills and hit .349 on 43 attacks as Illinois won its 26th game of the year Saturday night. Facing one of the top serving teams they'll face all season, the Illini were aced just once. Sophomore middle blocker Johannah Bangert hit .750 with nine kills. But perhaps the most important number of the night rested on the heads of the Illinois players afterwards. The tiaras bore the number "16" indicative of the fact that the Illini have reached the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA Tournament following a 26-24, 25-20, 25-22 win over Cincinnati in round two at Huff Hall.

Illinois, the ninth seed in the tournament, reaches the Sweet 16 for the 10th time in school history and third under head coach Don Hardin, who announced his retirement at the beginning of the week. At 26-7, the Illini have the most wins they have had since 2003, when Illinois went 26-7 in its last Sweet 16 appearance.

When athletes reach a big milestone, the proverbial question, comes "How does it feel?" DeBruler's response to that question was quite indicative of the hard work the 5-11 All-America candidate and the rest of her teammates love to put in and the workmanlike attitude they bring to the gym every day. "I'm just glad we get another week of practice so we can keep getting better," she said. "We've been continuing on getting better in every match and I'm just glad that we have another week with this team. All the hard work that we've put in all season is finally paying off."

Illinois needed the hard work of everyone on this night. Kayani Turner came into block right side at the end of all three sets and Catherine Culligan came in a big spot to serve late in the match. But perhaps the biggest lift off the bench came from sophomore Nicole Kump who saw her first game action in nearly three months. Kump had a kill and assisted on a crucial block.

"It goes down in the books as a 3-0 win, but I feel that it was an incredible battle by Cincinnati," said Illinois head coach Don Hardin. "They outperformed us in many categories for a majority of the match and it just came down to the stretch run of each set. We were able to keep our composure."

It's that even keel attitude that has been the hallmark of the Illinois team in a run that has seen the Illini win 13 of their last 15 matches. The Illini came prepared for a battle against the co-Big East champions and that's what they got. Set one was as high a level of volleyball from both sides as the Illini have seen in a match this season. Behind an emotional support from the home fans, Illinois built an early 7-3 lead. Friday night kill leader Kylie McCulley picked up where she left off with a pair of early scores and six kills in the opening set.

Illinois extended that lead to 14-9, but the Bearcats battled back, eventually fighting off set point on a swing from their big gun Stephanie Niemer (12 kills). Laura DeBruler gave the Illini the lead for good with a kill to make it 25-24 and won the set following a Cincinnati hitting error.

Sets two and three were close throughout, but the Illini took advantage of the few openings that Cincinnati gave them. Tied at 20-20 in set two, Illinois rattled off the final five points to take the set. DeBruler had three kills in those five points, the final four coming off the serve of McCulley.

After falling behind 11-9 in set three, Illinois scored six straight points, five from Edinger's serve to take a 15-11 lead and never trailed again on the night. Hillary Haen had a kill and teamed with Bangert on the slide play as well as they have all season. Match point fittingly came off the arm of DeBruler who had seven kills and hit .333 in the final set.

"I'm really impressed with these two (Haen and DeBruler," Hardin said pointing to them in the post-match press conference. "They represent the sophomore class that's out there keeping incredible composure late in sets. They all have the same ambitions on where they're taking this program. This is just the beginning."

"They proved why they are ranked as high as they are," said Cincinnati head coach Reed Sunahara. "Illinois has a lot of weapons. DeBruler is unbelievable. Their outside hitters are their go to players and they did a good job tonight."

Illinois hit .267 with just 14 hitting errors in the match. Senior Lizzie Bazzetta (24 assists) and Haen (20 assists) were on the money with their sets all night long.

Turner is the only Illinois player to have played on an NCAA team heading into 2008. Now the young Illini are headed to State College, Pa., for the round of 16 to meet either eighth seed California or New Mexico State, whom the Illini defeated in the first weekend of the season in Champaign. Should they get past that round, it could mean a date with top-seed and defending national champion Penn State on its home floor for the right to go the Final Four.

"(Despite our youth), I think it shows a lot that we're still able to go out there and compete and not think about what's at stake," DeBruler said. "We're able to just go out there and stick with what we know."