By Matt Bradshaw —
Volleyball (22-9) fell to three-seed Illinois (29-3) in the second round of the 2018 NCAA Championship. With the help of a home court advantage, the Fighting Illini overpowered Louisville 3-1 (25-22, 26-28, 25-17, 25-18) to advance to the Sweet 16.
U of L last advanced to the second round three years ago, when Illinois knocked them out of the tournament at Cardinal Arena. The Cardinals have yet to reach the round of 16 since 2005.
Following a first-round sweep of Dayton in its 27th tournament appearance, Louisville looked to update program history and advance further than recent seasons. Illinois ended those chances in Champaign despite the Cards putting up a fair fight.
The home team gained clear control of the court in the first set, though U of L began fighting back as play wore on. The score read 19-19 with the help of kills from junior Melanie McHenry, senior Amanda Green and sophomore Piper Roe.
The Fighting Illini would not be denied and upped their play at the net, working to a 25-22 win. Ten errors from Louisville hurt the team’s chances.
With an improved .239 hitting percentage, U of L gave Illinois a run for its money in the second set. The visitors went on to take it 28-26 to even the set total at halftime.
After the break, the Cardinals could not seem to gain clear footing or find any advantage. They lost the third set 25-17 and the fourth 25-18, dropping the match and ending the season.
Amanda Green led the squad with 17 kills and 10 digs. The senior put forth a great tournament performance in her final run and will be missed for her all-around abilities next season.
“Obviously, Amanda is capable of anything,” McHenry said following the first-round win. “Everybody plays their part. The seniors are a huge role on this team and without them we would not be successful this year. Her attitude out there is always positive and what she says is funny when we need it and strict when we need it, as well. ”
McHenry recorded 17 kills and finished the season with 383 total. The junior earned First Team All-ACC honors and, what with reaching 1000 career kills in her penultimate season, is due to return for a superb senior year.
Wilma Rivera posted 42 assists and 21 digs. The senior not only earned First Team All-ACC honors but also ACC Setter of the Year. She proved her singular ability to facilitate an offense through two seasons at U of L and will be hard to replace.
Also ending her career is senior Molly Sauer, who finished the season with 497 digs and 45 aces. The libero earned First Team All-ACC honors and recently reached 2000 career digs, becoming only the second player in program history to reach the mark.
Jasmine Bennett is the final senior on the roster. Injuries took away some of Bennett’s playing time this season, but she still finished with 217 kills.
Overall, the second-round loss is a disappointment for the program but represents the culmination of season-long hard work. U of L failed to reach the NCAA Championship in 2016, then turned around to win the ACC and reach the first round of the NCAA tournament in 2017.
Approaching the 2018 season, the Cardinals were primed for another run to the Dance. Head coach Dani Busboom Kelly took over the team in 2017 to enormous success in her first year and hoped to continue improvement.
Though perhaps not performing their best in conference play, Louisville logged a solid regular season and finished with a 14-4 record in the ACC. Busboom Kelly’s squad earned an at-large bid for the NCAA tournament and advanced further than their previous season.
Considering the coach has reached the postseason for two consecutive seasons, along with adding a first-round victory this fall, Busboom Kelly likely has even better years to come.
“We have fought through some nagging injuries but we are peaking and that is what is exciting,” Busboom Kelly said on reaching the NCAAs. “We have not played our best volleyball yet and they believe we have another level. Nothing matters anymore. It is a clean slate and a whole new season.”
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File Photo / The Louisville Cardinal