Illini volleyball heads into Sweet 16 with confidence

Illinois%E2%80%99+Danielle+Davis%2C+10%2C+goes+for+a+pass+during+the+NCAA+Second+Round+vs.+Iowa+State+at+Huff+Hall+on+Saturday.+Illinois+won+3-0.+Illinois+will+play+Florida+on+Friday+in+Ames%2C+Iowa.

Illinois’ Danielle Davis, 10, goes for a pass during the NCAA Second Round vs. Iowa State at Huff Hall on Saturday. Illinois won 3-0. Illinois will play Florida on Friday in Ames, Iowa.

Four blue banners hang from the rafters in Huff Hall for the Illinois volleyball team.

The banners commemorate the team’s accomplishments: One banner lists Illinois’ Big Ten Conference Championships. The next two banners honor the team’s back-to-back Final Four appearances in 1987 and ’88. The final banner credits the 2011 Illini on their run to the NCAA Championship match. 

As this year’s No. 9-seeded Illini prepare to play No. 8 Florida in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament this Friday in Ames, Iowa, head coach Kevin Hambly referenced the banners while talking to the media about the team’s goals for each season. Hambly helped hang the final banner after the 2011 season, and it hangs as a reminder of the magnitude of that team.

While the banners hang to commemorate the team’s past greatness, they’re also there to provide current and future Illini an attainable goal. 

“We’re supposed to be beyond this,” Hambly said of the Sweet 16. “(With) all the kids that we’ve recruited, we’ve been talking about making Final Fours, winning national titles, trying to put banners up and not just advancing to the tournament. No one is satisfied with where we are. There’s more to do.”

While Illinois (26-7, 16-4 Big Ten) feels it should make it beyond this point in the tournament every year, the road to this season’s Elite Eight won’t be easy.

This year, the Illini’s road to the Elite Eight goes through Rhamat Alhassan and Florida (27-3, 18-0 SEC).

Alhassan, a freshman middle blocker for the Gators, is one of the best middle blockers the Illini will see all season in a year that included the Illini playing No. 1 Stanford and its 2013 All-American middle blocker Inky Ajanaku.

Not only is Alhassan athletic — she can jump and touch 11-feet in the air, something no Illini can do — but Alhassan is also extremely gifted at scoring the ball efficiently. During the regular season, Alhassan led the nation with a .471 hitting percentage.

“She’s really long and really tall,” Hambly said. “She can hit the ball straight down and over people.”

The Illini have struggled to stop offensively gifted middle blockers, like Ajanaku, this season.

In order to make sure Alhassan doesn’t beat Illinois, players in both the back and frontcourt have been working in practice on reading the body language of hitters to anticipate where they are going with the ball.

“It’s just making sure we know their tendencies and getting the block in front of those and filling in the spaces and seems that we see,” sophomore defensive specialist Danielle Davis said. “It just comes down to us being scrappy and making plays and trying to really read where her arm is.”

While senior middle blocker Anna Dorn will be one of the first lines of defense against Alhassan and the other Florida attackers, Dorn and the frontcourt Illini know they can’t stop a player like Alhassan on their own.

“You just try to take up space, figure out what her tendencies are and just try to get your hands up to get a touch on the ball,” Dorn said. “When somebody jumps that high, it’s going to be hard to block them straight down, but just to slow it down for the back row would be ideal.”

While she is a major part of their team, Alhassan isn’t the only Gator the Illini have to watch out for, Florida will be riding a 22-match win streak.

“Obviously they’re going to have a lot of momentum coming in, a lot of confidence,” Davis said. “That’s going to be really important for us as well to make sure that we’re going in just as confident.”

Illinois’ confidence going into Friday’s match may come from the team’s five-match winning streak of its own.

The Illini may also find confidence knowing the banners at Huff Hall mean they’ve been this far in the tournament before and they deserve to be there again.

“Yeah, they won a bunch of games,” Davis said of Florida. “But they haven’t played us yet.”

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