Illinois volleyball faces familiar foe in Sweet 16

By Nicholas Fortin

The Illini have been here twice before, but not quite like this.

When Illinois faces Purdue on Friday, it will be the teams’ third meeting. Two major components will differentiate this match from the first contests: the venue and the stakes. In the rubber match of their series, the two teams will compete at State Farm Center for a chance to advance to the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament.

“They’re a great defensive team,” head coach Kevin Hambly said. “They know us. We know them. It’s going to be about execution.

“We’ll make adjustments. They’ll make adjustments. That happens, but I don’t think there will be any major tweaks, you kind of are who you are at this time of year.”

In their two games against each other this season, Illinois and Purdue have split, each winning at home. The Illini lost the match on Oct. 11 in four sets before returning home to sweep the Boilermakers. Despite the recent win in the series, though, Hambly said the Illini shouldn’t be overconfident.

“There’s a little bit of confidence in that but also teams are out for revenge,” Hambly said. “There’ll be some revenge coming at us, which could be a good thing or a bad thing. To me when this team (Illinois) believes that they should win, they compete a little bit harder, they’re a little bit more comfortable.”

The Illini’s road to the Sweet 16 seemed to be a fairly easy one. Illinois beat Morehead State in three sets in the first round before taking down foe Marquette in four sets in the second round. The Illini were outplayed in the first set against the Golden Eagles but rebounded, winning the next three sets on the back of strong play from libero Jennifer Beltran and outside hitters Jocelynn Birks and Liz McMahon.

“I think the biggest thing is that we’ve been working really hard just when it comes to being scrappy, picking up balls, making really great plays on defense,” Beltran said. “We’re a really defensive-minded team, and that’s something we definitely pride ourselves on and it’s something we’ve been pushing ourselves to do every single day, so it kind of sets the tone for everything.”

Purdue’s road to the Sweet 16 looks similar to Illinois’. The Boilermakers beat Central Arkansas in three sets and knocked off Missouri, the No. 4 overall seeded and highest in the regional, in a 3-1 win.

The Illini will have to face a well balanced, defensive minded team with good middle blocker KiKi Jones. Because of the familiarity between the two teams, Beltran feels the match will come down to whether Illinois can execute.

“We know if we do our part and do what we need to do we’ll take care of them,” she said. “I think we’re hungry. We see the opportunity that’s ahead of us and there’s a big chance for us to go and take it.”

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