Illinois ousts Florida to reach semifinals

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The final point -- a fourth-set kill shot appropriately enough launched by outside hitter Colleen Ward that ricocheted off a defender and out of bounds -- hit the floor of the University of Florida's O'Connell Center with an emphatic pop, and the visiting Illinois Illini raised their arms as champions.

Next stop, the semifinals.

The 31-4 Illini, No. 1 in the nation for four weeks earlier in the season before coming into the volleyball postseason as the No. 3 seed, were playing in their fourth consecutive NCAA tournament, but, with the exception of obligatory T-shirts, they possessed no significant souvenirs to show for the experience.

Each of their three previous seasons ended without advancing past the regional semifinal, leaving the Illini unable to totally enjoy the experience. Now they are going to San Antonio on Thursday in their first trip to the semifinals.

"The minute that we lost last year, that's all we were talking about," third-year Illinois coach Kevin Hambly said going into the tournament. "We've got to fix this. We've got to … approach things differently this year to try to get past that."

Mission accomplished -- a four-set, 25-22, 23-25, 25-14, 25-20 NCAA regional championship decision over home-crowd-powered No. 17 Florida.

The difference in Illinois this year?

"I think we have more talent," Hambly said. "I think we are also tougher. We talked about needing to play tougher, to be tougher and to define what that is. Toughness is staying in the moment and fighting the distractions.

"When people think of tough, they think of something physical -- taking a punch or fighting an ankle sprain. To me, real competitive toughness is when you aren't at your best and you're being distracted by your performance or getting blocked, and you fight through that and perform and execute well."

And raw talent is never a bad thing.

"They're just huge and can bring the heat," Florida coach Mary Wise said.

With a starting lineup that features 6-foot-6 Liz McMahon and All-Big-10 outside hitters 6-foot-3 Michelle Bartsch and 6-foot-2 Ward, Illinois can be a powerful force. Against that steady assault, the unseeded Gators scrapped but could not stand their ground.

"We had no answer for them," Wise said.

Adding insult to disappointment, the chief Illini tormentor was once one of the Gators' own.

Ward, who played two seasons at Florida before transferring to Illinois, was a beast against her former mates. Named the tournament's most outstanding player, she punished Florida with 23 kills, 11 digs and four assists, hitting .500 on 42 total attempts.

"She was on fire," Hambly said. "I think she enjoyed coming back here. She likes the place. She has good memories of this place.

"And I think she handled it great. She said she pretended like she wasn't playing Florida, just playing volleyball. She can pretend that anytime."

Throw in 51 assists by setter Annie Luhrsen and 12 kills by Bartsch, and Illinois had the fuel it needed.

"I think the biggest thing we did was treat it as volleyball," Hambly said. "It wasn't a final eight match. It was just volleyball. We went out and played like we want to play. That's tough. And I'm proud of them."

Before the game, Florida's Wise predicted points against Illinois would be hard to come by. She stressed the need for the Gators to work their system and be in sync.

It never happened.

A night after converting a sky-high .439 of their shots against Michigan, the Gators managed .338 against the Illini. The night's tone was set in the first set when Florida committed 11 errors and hit .024 of its shots.

It was high-intensity volleyball. A night of round-house punches and painful jabs. Kill shots came with blazing speed, counterbalanced by dinks and digs.

And the crowd screamed on, a pro-Florida assembly of 3,523 that arrived early and wanted to stay loud. But eventually, much like the Gators' players, the fans were worn down by the Illinois effort.

"This team is different than the other teams I've been with," Bartsch said. "We're really mentally tough, and it's a great feeling. … We've come a long way from my freshman year here. I think we take pride in that and really use our experience to show all the young players."

Florida's leaders, All-American Kelly Murphy and Kristy Jaeckel, both stood their ground against the Illini. Murphy threw down a triple-double, 13 kills, 21 assists and 17 digs. Jaeckel added 19 kills and 11 digs. After that, however, there wasn't a lot of help, and the Gators finished the year 27-6.

"Unfortunately, we didn't get every Gator's A-game," Wise said. "And we knew that to win the match we would need everybody's A-game. A couple of our players had an off night."

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