Illini volleyball sweeps Morehead State in NCAA tournament 1st round

For the first time since 2011, the Illinois volleyball team won an NCAA tournament game.

In front of a loud and energetic Huff Hall crowd, the Illini advanced to the second round of the tournament by beating Morehead State 3-0, by scores of 25-22, 25-21, 25-16.

“I think we were a little anxious, and we rushed things early, and it took us a while to settle in,” head coach Kevin Hambly said. “Once we settled in I thought we played a whole lot better, but we still have to play better against Marquette (on Saturday).”

The Illini looked like the team that has been scorching hot the past five weeks. Sophomore setter Alexis Viliunas dished out 32 assists to go along with eight digs and two block assists. Sophomore outside hitter Jocelynn Birks led the way on the Illinois offensive, racking up 16 kills and hitting .308 on the night. She also had 12 digs for her 11th double-double of the season.

“Jocelynn has been great for us,” senior libero Jennifer Beltran said. “She just hits over the block and has been hitting some really good shots and playing awesome defense. She’s been doing great.”

The Illini relied on a series of runs in each set to gain control of the lead and take momentum away from the Eagles’ hitters. After trading points for the first half of set one, Illinois went on a 7-3 run to take a 22-17 lead, never looking back.

In set two, the Illini once again managed to go on a big run midway through the set, taking five consecutive points and an 18-14 lead en route to a four-point win in the set.

With the momentum heavily in the Illini’s favor heading into the third set, Illinois took control early, going on a 12-3 run to lead 20-10. Morehead State would fight back and score six more points, but the lead proved to be insurmountable.

Prior to the Illinois-Morehead State game, Hambly and his squad were able to get a glimpse at their next opponent, Marquette, who swept Louisville 3-0.

“They’re fast, they have great slide hitters, real competitive,” Hambly said. “They’re used to winning. We have our hands full with them tomorrow.”

Hambly likened Marquette to Michigan and Michigan State in terms of the team’s caliber. He also said the Illini will have to be committed defensively, as the Golden Eagles present a high-efficiency offense. Against Louisville, Marquette hit .305 and only made nine errors in 118 attempts. Illinois showed some vulnerability against Morehead State’s top attacker, Alex Fitzmorris, who had 13 kills and hit .480 in the match.

Blake can be reached at [email protected].