The Utah women’s volleyball team’s best conference season in the program’s Pac-12 era could have been even better. The Utes finished third with a 14-6 record, and five of those losses came in five-set matches.
One or two more wins may have been enough to give Utah a host’s berth in the NCAA Tournament, instead of playing in Provo with a likely second-round contest vs. BYU. That’s why coach Beth Launiere and her players experienced “a lot of emotions” Sunday during the selection show, Launiere said.
Yet the Utes could rationalize that all of those pressure-packed matches had served a purpose, and they’re ready to meet Illinois and potentially No. 14 seed BYU on the Cougars’ home court. Utah (22-9) meets Illinois (16-13), the Big Ten’s seventh-place team, at 4 p.m. Friday at Smith Fieldhouse. Last December, the Utes beat Denver before being swept by BYU. The Cougars then were the No. 4 seed on their way to the Final Four in 2018, when Illinois also reached that stage.
“I’m really excited to go down there and do better than we did last year,” said Dani Drews, a junior outside hitter who joined teammate Kenzie Koerber on the All-Pac-12 team. “We’re grown so much as a team and we’re playing such good volleyball that I’m excited to see what we can do.”
The Utes have gone 5-6 overall in five-set matches. “I feel like we’re battle-tested, I really do,” said Launiere, the Pac-12 Coach of the Year. “You go through the gantlet of the Pac-12, and everybody’s battling. … So we got ourselves into some big-time, five-set matches against some of the top teams in the country. That’s got to help us. There’s not a situation that we haven’t been in this year, that we aren’t ready to handle again.”
Illinois' players agonized during the selection show and the Illini were one of the last four teams to make the 64-team field, according to The News-Gazette of Champaign, Ill.
Illinois’ credentials included plenty of quality losses, with a 2-11 record against NCAA qualifiers. The Illini, who lost to the Pac-12′s second-place Washington (in five sets) and ninth-place Colorado in September, are led by All-Big Ten player Jacqueline Quade and fellow senior Ashlyn Fleming, who made the second team.
UTAH VS. ILLINOIS
When • Friday, 4 p.m.
Where • Smith Fieldhouse, Provo