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Illinois Volleyball Advances to First National Championship

(Updated with additional coverage from Greg Echlin)

The University of Illinois women's volleyball team will remember the Alamodome. It was at the Alamodome in San Antonio that the third-seed Fighting Illini (32-4) defeated top-seed USC(29-5) Thursday night, winning three out of five sets, (25-27, 25-18, 25-22, 18-25, 15-10) to qualify for the NCAA championship game for the first time.

The victory came on Illinois' third trip to the women's volleyball Final Four, and their first since 1988.

Senior outside hitter Colleen Ward had 27 kills and Michelle Bartsch added 22 kills for the Illini victory.

The drama intensified as the fifth set reached match point, with Illinois fans showing their anticipation with a chant of "One more point! One more point!"

That last rally turned out to be the most dramatic, and the crowd oohed and ahhed as each powerful spike was answered by an inspiring dig on the net's other side. It continued for a minute, seeming longer, until U-S-C's Katie Fuller committed an attack error. The match belonged to the Fighting Illini.

Liz McMahon, a 6-foot-6 freshman from Ohio, had five kills in that deciding set. After the game, she was soaking in the experience.

"It's a blast, I can tell you that", McMahom said of the win that ushered her team into the finals. "Yeah, it's just fun, but with this team and how far we've come."

The Illini's post-game celebration was subdued, with Coach Kevin Hambly reminding his players that they still had one more game. Nevertheless, Hambly spoke glowingly of what his team had accomplished.

"I'm proud of the girls", Hambly said. "You know our goal was to get to this match, the next match, and they stuck to that. Well, more than just get to the match. But I thought they were determined to make that happen."

Alex Jupiter had 32 kills for USC. The Trojans lost in the semis for the second consecutive year after being pushed to five sets for a third consecutive match this tournament.

Illinois will play UCLA in the championship match Saturday night at 7:30 PM Central Time. The Bruins defeated Florida State in three sets (25-16, 25-17, 25-21) in the Thursday night semifinals. Illinois is 0-and-9 in all-time play against UCLA in volleyball.

(Reported for Illinois Public Media News by Greg Echlin; additional reporting by the Associated Press)

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