Illinois volleyball to host NCAA tournament’s opening rounds

By Nicholas Fortin

After a one-year hiatus, the No. 18 Illinois volleyball team is back in the NCAA tournament.

The Illini (16-14, 12-8 Big Ten) were ranked 13th overall and will begin their tournament run Friday against Morehead State (27-7, 15-1 Ohio Valley).

“My heart was racing the whole time,” sophomore setter Alexis Viliunas said of watching the NCAA tournament selection show. “I wasn’t really sure what to expect, especially after losing to Minnesota, I was not expecting to get seeded, so my eyes lit up when I saw it.”

With its ranking, Illinois will host the first two rounds of the tournament at Huff Hall and have the potential to play the following two rounds at State Farm Center if it is able to advance.

Senior libero Jennifer Beltran said she was extremely happy not just with getting into the tournament but also with getting the opportunity to play at home. 

“(I was) a little shocked, but really, really excited,” Beltran said. “It’s a really great opportunity for us. Playing at home, to have the chance to have four straight matches at our place would be really nice and it’s something not a lot of teams get to have.”

After an up-and-down start to the season, the Illini finished the year strong winning seven of their last nine games including a six-game winning streak in November. Morehead State has also been hot of late, winning nine of its last 10 games and going on an eight-game win streak of its own.

Illinois head coach Kevin Hambly said he thought the biggest factor in putting the Illini, who ended the season 17th in the RPI poll, in the tournament was a combination of who they’ve played and how they finished.

“It had to be the schedule,” Hambly said of what got his team seeded. “We had the toughest strength of schedule and finishing fourth in the conference. Usually the top-four teams get a seed, that’s how it has been, so where we finished in conference and strength of schedule put us over the top.”

Illinois is one of eight teams from the Big Ten to make the tournament this year, which Beltran thinks shows how tough the conference is and how tough playing in the Big Ten has made the Illini.

“It shows how tough the Big Ten is,” Beltran said. “I know we say that all the time, but it really is. Every night we’re facing a really good team, at home, on the road, and it was great preparation for us.”

Nicholas can be reached at [email protected] and @IlliniSportsGuy.