Illini volleyball opens NCAA tournament vs. Murray State


Illinois’ Liz McMahon (14) & Anna Dorn (5) set up a block against a hit from Michigan’s Adeja Lambert (11) during the game against the University of Michigan at Huff Hall on Saturday, Nov. 30, 2014.

Despite Murray State’s lack of height, the Racers won’t be overlooked.

The Illinois volleyball team (24-7, 16-4 Big Ten) has five players on its roster at 6-foot-3 or taller, and will start its NCAA Tournament against Murray State, a team that only has one player over 6-foot. While some teams may dismiss the Racers because of their small stature, head coach Kevin Hambly is taking Murray State seriously because of its athleticism.

“They’re not big, but they play physical and they’re very athletic,” Hambly said. “They serve aggressively and they’ve got some kids that can score. They seem to play fearless and just kind of attack teams.”

Murray State combats its height disadvantage by running a quick-tempo offense that allowed the Racers to dominate the Ohio Valley Conference this season. The Racers have been balanced offensively throughout the year. Three players, two of whom were under 6-foot, record over 300 kills this season.

For Illini senior Liz McMahon, who’s 6-foot-6, being significantly taller than an opponent isn’t always an advantage.

Get The Daily Illini in your inbox!

  • Catch the latest on University of Illinois news, sports, and more. Delivered every weekday.
  • Stay up to date on all things Illini sports. Delivered every Monday.
This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.
Thank you for subscribing!

“I actually struggle with that,” McMahon said. “I’m used to playing at a higher level above the net. They’re pretty fast and aggressive too, that’s always a challenge for us.”

Junior setter Alexis Viliunas said she doesn’t change the way she sets the Illini attackers because of the height difference on the other side of the net.

“Our hitters still need to be able to hit over their hands,” Viliunas said. “Sometimes with shorter players on the other side our hitters get really excited and they hit down into their hands and they’re still able to get blocks. I just keep the ball high and let them hit over and do their thing with the ball.”

The Racers (26-5, 14-2 Ohio Valley) were especially hot to end the year, winning 15 of their last 16 matches and the conference championship.

“Teams that are used to winning are always a challenge,” Hambly said.

Illinois has been on a similar hot streak. The Illini have won 13 of their last 15 matches and finished the year with a three-match winning streak that included a win over then-No. 10 Nebraska.

“I like the direction we’ve been going,” Hambly said. “We’ve learned a lot about ourselves and we know how we want to play. We have players that are executing at a high level.”

“We’ve been tested. In every way we’re going to be tested. I don’t think anyone’s going to bring something out that we haven’t seen so that gives you confidence.”

Since the turnaround between the end of the regular season and the beginning of tournament play is compacted Hambly said that this week’s perpetration will center more on the Illini than their opponents.

“This time of year is always about you more,” Hambly said. “We’re looking at the opponent and we want to have a gameplan together, but because you have such short windows to scout … It becomes a lot more about you.”

While the Illini won’t be looking past Murray State until the final point is scored, they have a bigger goal in mind than making it to the second round.

“We’ve made it a goal the past couple years to win the national championship and it’s just something we have in mind,” Viliunas said. “This year, it’s definitely tangible and I can’t wait to start.”

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