Illinois wins with Hollywood ending

SAN ANTONIO -- A magnificent thrill ride of a point Thursday ended the chance the national championship in volleyball could be for city bragging rights. Illinois defeated USC 3-2 in the semifinals and advanced to the program's first NCAA final, where the Illini will face UCLA.

It could have been an all-Los Angeles meeting for the title, and no one would have been surprised. USC's No. 7 seed and UCLA's No. 9 were the products of the selection committee members mechanically following the RPI instead of their own eyes. Clearly, both the Bruins and Trojans proved themselves all season and through the NCAA tournament to be in that small group of the very best teams in the nation.

But USC's survival in the absurdly loaded Honolulu Regional meant the Trojans had played two championship-caliber matches just to get to the national semifinals. On Thursday, in their third consecutive five-setter, the Trojans finally blinked. That was because a deep Illinois team forced them to.

AP Photo/Darren Abate

Illinois' Michelle Bartsch, Erin Johnson and Annie Luhrsen, from left, defend against USC's Alex Jupiter in the Illini's victory over the Trojans.

The No. 3 seed Illini won 25-27, 25-18, 25-22, 18-25, 15-10 in a match that had everything the first semifinal -- UCLA's 3-0 walkover against Florida State -- lacked. That showed in a final point that went on and on and on, with the Trojans fighting for their lives in the tournament and the Illini battling to end the struggle.

It lasted a full minute, with the teams combining to get the ball back and forth across the net 20 times after the serve. The 20th time over was out by USC, giving the point and match to the Illini.

"I thought the last point just defined the whole match itself, how tough it was," Illinois coach Kevin Hambly said. "It was two very good teams playing high-level volleyball."

Like last season, the 2011 national championship will be decided between the two power conferences in women's volleyball: the Pac-12 and the Big Ten. Last year, Penn State won its fourth consecutive title by beating Cal. This year, the only team that was making a repeat appearance in the Final Four was USC, the No. 1-ranked team in the last coaches' poll and many observers' pick as this tournament's "real" top seed.

The Trojans, with their past experience of being in this position, were the perceived slight favorites against Illinois. And USC seemed a little more comfortable in the tight first set.

Then having settled down in a victorious second set, the Illini rallied to take the third set by winning six consecutive points after trailing 22-19. Salvaging that set might have been the most critical stretch of the match for Illinois.

USC found itself in the same position it had been against both Hawaii and Pepperdine in its previous two matches: down two sets to one. And like they did against the Rainbow Wahine and Waves, the Trojans won the fourth set as senior star hitter Alex Jupiter took over. She had 13 of her match-high 32 kills in that set.

In the fifth set, though, Illinois' versatility in its attack seemed to prevail.

"I think the difference in the match was that we had more balance," Hambly said. "We had more people we could go to in the fifth set. We weren't as worn down."

Indeed, the Illini got a huge lift from 6-foot-6 freshman Liz McMahon, who had five of her 10 kills in the last set. Seniors Colleen Ward and Michelle Bartsch led the way for the Illini with 27 and 22 kills, respectively, in the match.

"It's surreal," McMahon said. "I'm really just taking it in. It's a blast, I can tell you that."

Illinois previously had advanced as far as the Final Four in 1987 and '88 but lost in the semifinals both times. Meanwhile, UCLA has won three titles, but the last was in 1991. The Bruins' most recent previous appearance in the championship match was in 1994, when they lost to Stanford.

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UCLA's Rachael Kidder had little difficulty with Florida State as the Bruins won 3-0.

On Thursday, UCLA's semifinal victory was about as low drama as the nightcap was high intensity. The Bruins overwhelmed No. 12 seed Florida State 25-16, 25-17, 25-21. Seminoles coach Chris Poole called an early timeout in the first set, reminding his team to just concentrate on the floor itself and not the Alamodome setting.

"Try to make it a smaller gym for them," Poole said afterward of what he was attempting to do. "Because we're used to [one] about the size of this room. A little bit of an exaggeration, but it's a physical-education gym."

Attempting to visualize themselves back in the more friendly confines of Tallahassee didn't do much good. Not when UCLA hit .328 as a team, outdug the Seminoles 54-44 and never let them even get the sense they were in the match.

If UCLA had any concern after winning the first two sets, it was that in some matches this season, the Bruins have done a little snoozing in the third set. But that wasn't the case Thursday.

"We talked about how we just need to keep working hard and don't take it for granted," UCLA's Kelly Reeves said. "Because in Pac-12 season, we would kind of come out a little sluggish [in third sets]. I thought we did a very good job and were very patient."

UCLA's Rachael Kidder had 21 kills and just three errors, hitting .462. Bruins coach Michael Sealy was most happy, though, with her extra effort on defense.

"There must be a misprint on the box score," he said, teasing her. "Rachael had 12 digs. Something's not right here."

Earlier in the day, Sealy was named national coach of the year. It's just his second year running the program; he is a former player for the Bruins, and previously was an assistant coach for both UCLA's men's and women's teams.

"He's definitely the best coach I've ever had in volleyball," Kidder said. "Sometimes he'll tell me to do things, and I'll be like, 'You're crazy; that's not going to work.' And I do it, and ... it totally works. He has such intelligence about volleyball.

"He's an inspiring person. Even though he makes fun of me a lot, he definitely gives me confidence, too."

Now, she and the Bruins will try to take that confidence against the unfamiliar foe of Illinois, as opposed to facing a USC team UCLA already met twice during the regular season.

"They're very different than what we just saw," Hambly said of the Bruins in comparison to the Trojans. "USC is more of a high-ball team, and big middles that get up and over us. UCLA will be fast everywhere, and they'll challenge us. We'll have to play a whole different style against them."

Mechelle Voepel is a columnist for ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.

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