Illinois volleyball remains undefeated through Illini Classic

The No. 11 Illinois volleyball team made a statement with its play in the Illini Classic this weekend. 

The Illini came away from the weekend with a 3-0 record that included sweeps of Long Beach State on Friday, Southern Illinois on Saturday morning and No. 20 North Carolina on Saturday night. The Illini beat the Tar Heels by scores of 25-19, 25-17 and 25-23.

“It’s awesome,” junior outside hitter Ali Stark said. “Especially against North Carolina, after they swept us last year, it’s really exciting to come out and beat them in three.

“It sets the tone for the type of team that we want to be and definitely … it’s a good confidence booster.”

Head coach Kevin Hambly said Illinois’ quick tempo and blocking ability startled North Carolina early on as the Illini were able to hold Chaniel Nelson, the Tar Heels highest scoring outside hitter through two games in the tournament, without a kill in the first two sets.

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“I thought we played really good defense,” Hambly said. “We did a great job on her (Nelson) and that kind of took the wind out of their sails.”

The first set between the Illini and the Tar Heels was highly contested. North Carolina scored the first two points before allowing Illinois to tie the set and eventually take the lead. The Illini were able to build a six-point lead on the Tar Heels but couldn’t expand their advantage.

North Carolina came within a point of tying the set at 19-18, but couldn’t take the set. Instead, an Illini attack led by Stark and senior outside hitter Morganne Criswell, who both finished with three kills in the set, coupled with three consecutive North Carolina attacking errors on the final three points gave Illinois a 25-19 first set win.

The Illini were able to strike quicker in the second set as the team jumped to a 4-1 lead. The Tar Heels battled back to cut the lead to 14-10, but senior middle blocker Anna Dorn played a large role in keeping the Illini in the lead. She helped to block two Tar Heel kill attempts in the final four points and ended the set with a kill of her own. 

“I thought our kids responded well and found a way to win,” Hambly said. “I like that, I hope that becomes contagious.”

North Carolina fought the Illini down the stretch in the third set, but yet again the Illini prevailed — this time behind senior outside hitter Liz McMahon, who carried the Illini offensively. McMahon contributed three consecutive kills as the Illini took the third set and the match from the Tar Heels.

McMahon was named MVP of the tournament for her efforts and both Criswell and junior outside hitter Jocelyn Birks were named to the All-Tournament team.

While the tournament MVP and the All-Tournament nominations are nice, Dorn said the team was happier with the fact it had built some energy prior to three weekends on the road. 

“I think it’s great to start off our season, especially like this at home,” Dorn said. “We’ve had a great crowd all weekend and I hope this gives us some momentum.

“To have that experience, especially at home — and to have those victories — is really going to give us a little bit more of an edge.” 

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