Provo • Utah’s volleyball team could almost see the wisps of a 2018 Final Four appearance coming off the Illinois players lined up across the net during both teams’ opening match of the NCAA Tournament. The Illini had just been where the Utes want to go, and now served as a speed bump along their route.
They almost turned into a blockade.
The Utes rallied back from two straight extra-point losses to claim Friday’s match at Smith Fieldhouse on the BYU campus, 25-23, 24-26, 25-27, 25-23, 15-10. The victory sets up a much-anticipated second-round rematch against BYU, which swept New Mexico State in Friday’s late match, on Saturday at 7 p.m. BYU swept the Utes last year in the second round on its way to the Final Four.
“It’s probably a match indicative of our season,” coach Beth Launiere said of the win over Illinois. “We’ve certainly had a lot of five-setters this year. I felt this team stayed confident. We were definitely in a bit of trouble for a while, but this team really kept battling and that’s what the dance is all about, right there.”
The No. 17-ranked Utes (23-9) are now 6-6 in five-set matches this season. Had they won a couple more in Pac-12 play, they likely could have hosted the first round. Instead, they found themselves back at BYU, where their season ended last year.
They hope to change the storyline this time around.
“We’ve said for a while, ‘Whoever, wherever and whatever it takes,’ ” Launiere said.
Friday’s win took almost everything the Utes had. Twice, they held match point at 24-23 but couldn’t capitalize. In the second set, Jacqueline Quade’s kill — one of her team-high 23 for the night — extended the set for Illinois (16-14). In the third set, Dani Drews’ quick-reaction dig of a block of her own attack went back over the net and just out on the far side of the court. Both times Illinois scored the subsequent point before going on to take the set win.
The Utes made good on their third chance, though, as Berkeley Oblad came up with a stuff block of Ashlyn Fleming in the middle and Illinois’ cross-court hit went wide. That gave the Utes the fourth set and new life. Led by a red-hot Drews, they never trailed in the final set.
“During timeout in the fourth set, it was like, ‘Our season is not ending here,’ ” Drews said. “And we just kind of went into business mode.”
Drews, a junior from Brighton High in Sandy, led all hitters with 27 kills, including the final two of the match. In the process, she claimed the Utes’ single-game record previously held by Adora Anae (2016) with a total of 607. Setter Saige Ka’aha’aina-Torres also claimed a single-season record in assists, adding 57 to her total for 1,434 this year.
Not to be overlooked, senior libero Brianna Doehrmann felled the career digs record previously held by Keisha Fisher (2007-10). Doehrmann made 21 on the night for a total of 1,629 — so far.
The Utes still have more sets to play, starting with Saturday’s rivalry match against BYU, seeded No. 14 in the tournament despite being ranked No. 13 in the most recent poll. Utah is eyeing a chance to get past Sweet 16, which it has reached three times (2001, 2008, 2017) but never survived. Meanwhile Illinois, which dropped out of the top 25 this week and was an at-large berth a season after losing to runner-up Nebraska in five sets in the Final Four last season, sees its rocky season end.
“Knew little bit of holes in their game but not many,” coach Chris Tamas said of Utah. “They just made a few big plays at the end. In our sport, margins are thin and they came up with a little more than we did.’’