Huff still home for Illini volleyball in NCAA tournament

After hearing that the Illinois volleyball team will host the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament, senior opposite side hitter Liz McMahon let out a sigh of relief.

The Illini have the chance to play two more games at Huff Hall this season, which makes the three seniors happy that they will play in front of their home fans at least one last time.

“Being a senior, I was hoping for a couple more games at Huff,” McMahon said. “It’s always an advantage to be there, so I’m definitely excited about that.”

The Illini are the No. 9 overall seed in the tournament and will host Murray State on Friday. If Illinois wins, it will face the winner of Western Kentucky and Iowa State on Saturday.

To head coach Kevin Hambly, playing in Huff in front of a raucous crowd led by the Spike Squad, the team’s student section, gives the Illini an edge.

“We get another opportunity to be at home and play in front of these fans,” Hambly said. “Certainly Huff’s a tough place to play. I think it’s exciting. The girls are excited. It’s more comfortable.”

Eye on the competition

While the team said it isn’t looking past Murray State, it’s hard not to, given the side of the bracket Illinois finds itself in.

When asked about the early-round competition, McMahon’s response was concise.

“We’ve got a couple really strong first-round teams,” she said.

The Illini may have been stuck with the toughest of the four sides of the bracket. They will need to beat No. 8 Florida and then No. 1 Stanford, if both teams advance, to make it to the Final Four.

McMahon said the team’s first two opponents shouldn’t be overlooked but added that the Illini want the opportunity to play Stanford again after losing in five sets to the Cardinal on the road earlier this season.

“There’s a lot of parity,” McMahon said. “You can’t be too comfortable. You have to play your best. You can’t wait around. It’s go time, and that’s really exciting for us.”

Illini try to get healthy

Illinois’ biggest concern moving forward may be the team’s health.

Although the Illini looked healthy for the most part as they closed out regular season against Michigan, the team has been banged up in recent weeks.

Senior outside hitter Morganne Criswell has dealt with a knee injury and is now dealing with a right ankle injury — she has been wearing a boot on her foot as a precautionary measure. Senior outside hitter Jocelynn Birks hurt her knee against Nebraska but said she was all right after the Michigan match.

Illness has also affected the team as of late. Outside hitter Michelle Strizak and setter Alexis Viliunas have been sick.

“Especially with the adversity, we’ve had to face this last week with injuries and all that, we know we have depth,” Hambly said. “We’re going in the right direction. We’re starting to gel, and we’re starting to peak at the right time.”

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