Back on Oct. 3, Illinois came to the Sports Pavilion and outplayed the Gophers for three sets -- but lost in five.

Those teams meet again on Friday in the NCAA volleyball, in a Sweet 16 match in Des Moines.

"We had a chance to win," Illinois coach Kevin Hambly said this week. "We were up 2-1. Our kids have as much confidence as you can have at this time of the year going into that [this] match."

Illinois beat Southern Illinois 3-0 and No. 15 overall seed Louisville 3-1 -- "we played great defense down the stretch" -- in its first two matches in Louisville.

But now the Illini have to beat one, possibly two Big Ten teams to win the regional. Two-time defending NCAA champion Penn State, seeded No. 7, and unseeded Hawaii play in Friday's other semifinal.

"That's the nature of the Big Ten, you are going to run into them in the tournament," Hambly said. "This is the third time in the Sweet 16 we're in a region with three Big Ten teams."

Hambly, in seven years as head coach, has taken six teams to Sweet 16s. Only one got farther. His 2011 team was the NCAA runner-up.

"We've got a lot of information on Minnesota," Hambley said. "We know them well. That helped with the game preparation.

"Minnesota is an exception team. They won the league handily. ... [But] we gave them everything they can handle at thier place."

Set scores in that early Oct. match were, 26-24, 22-25, 22-25, 25-10, 15-6 for the Gophers.

The Gophers outhit the Illini .325 to .176 and outblocked them 16-6. The visitors actually had one more kill, 69-68, but also made more attack errors 36 to 16.

Jocelynn Birks, a 6-2 senior outside hitter, led the Illini in kills that match, as she usually does, with 22. Michelle Strizak, a 6-1 junior, added 18 and Katie Stadick had 17.

Birks had 57 attacks, becoming the program's all-time career lead in that category with her last one. She averages 3.98 kills/set, Strizak 2.97. Ali Bastianelli, a 6-3 freshman middle blocker, averages 1.63 blocks per set -- "she's grown into a great defensive player" -- and freshman sett Jordyn Poulter 10.4 assists per set.

Because of Bastianelli and Poulter, both top 10 national recruits, the Illini's 2015 incoming class was rated the nation's best.

"Both teams have gotten a lot better" since that match, Hambly said.

He said matches often come down to who had the best left outside hitter. "We got a good one in Birks and they have the [Big Ten] player of the year in [Daly] Santana."

Santana had 26 kills against Illinois. Hannah Paige added 14 and Sarah Wilhite 11. Hannah Tapp also had nine blocks and her twi sister Paige eight.

Hambly said Wilhite was one of the keys to the Gophers' win because he didn't know much about her. "We didn't do a good job of defending her," he said.

Illinois finished 21-12 overall, but only 10-10 in the Big Ten this season but still got one of the conference's eight at-large NCAA bids. The Illini tied for seventh place with Michigan State.

Hambly said his team did not meet its expectations during the regular season -- "for us it was a frustrating year" -- but still can in the NCAA tournament.

"Our expectations are to advance. We want to go to the Final Four. We want to win the national championship," he said.

So do the other 15 teams still playing.


Hambly is a 1995 grad of BYU, but he does have a Minnesota connection. He was an assistant coach with the Minnesota Chill of the U.S. Professional Volleyball in 2001-02. The Chill won the league title in 2002.


Two legendary coaches will compete against each other when Penn State (28-5) plays Hawaii (28-1) in Friday's second game in Des Moines.

Russ Rose, in his 37th season at Penn State, had a career record of 1,189-185 for a winning percentage of 86.5 percent. Dave Shoji, in his 41st season at Hawaii, had a record of 1,178-197-1 for a winning percentage of .857.

Shoji's Hawaii team is 0-5 vs. the Nittany Lions; they last met in the 2009 NCAA semifinals with PSU winning 3-1.

The Rainbow Wahine has won 23 matches in a row since a loss to UCLA.