Former volleyball player Viliunas brings energy to women’s hoops

Illinois’ Alexis Viliunas bodying Northwestern’s Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah during the game against Illinois at the State Farm Center on February 4. The Illini lost 69-59.

By Daniel Dexter

Tweet: Former #illini volleyball player Alexis Viliunas added energy and excitement in her first and only season on the Illinois women’s basketball team

Check out Brian Heidegger’s Radio Story on Alexis Viliunas here.

Thunderous applause typically accompanied the entrance of senior Alexis Viliunas into Illinois women’s basketball home games.

It was rare to see the forward on the court. She’s played a little over four minutes this season — all of which came at the tail end of games. But despite her meager minutes, Viliunas is one of the most experienced athletes on team – just not in basketball.

The La Grange native made a name for herself as a two-year starter for the Illinois volleyball team under head coach Kevin Hambly. In her role as a setter, she recorded 2,707 assists in her four years with the team.

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So when Hambly texted her around Christmas time about an opportunity to join the basketball team, Viliunas had an interesting decision to make. 

She hadn’t played basketball competitively since freshman year of high school, and her only experience since then was playing against her volleyball teammates as a form of conditioning.

“I was actually pretty good at playing basketball when I was growing up,” Viliunas said. “It was a pretty tough decision to give it up because I loved it. I would play in my backyard against my brother, and I played on travel teams. At the time, it was hard, but I got over it quickly because volleyball is such a time consuming sport.”

With the conclusion of her Illinois volleyball career, Viliunas didn’t have anything stopping her from playing on the basketball team. So during a home game against Penn State on Jan. 23, she made her first appearance as an official member of the team. But, with only one practice under her belt, the newcomer didn’t see any playing time.

Head coach Matt Bollant needed more bodies in practice and with the departure of several players in the offseason and a season-ending injury to Cierra Rice, he decided to reach out to Hambly to fill a roster spot. Viliunas was exactly who he was looking for.

“She’s a good athlete,” Bollant said after the Penn State game. “She’s certainly a great kid, and she brought a lot of life and energy.”

Viliunas’ basketball teammates agreed with Bollant’s sentiment. Guard Brooke Kissinger said everyone on the team knew Viliunas as one of the athletes on the volleyball team, so it wasn’t like adding a stranger. Kissinger added that Viliunas’ excitement made her a good fit for the team.

Viliunas fully embraced her role of bringing “laughs and smiles” to an Illini team that has struggled throughout the season. The view from the bench is something Viliunas got accustomed to during the volleyball season when Hambly decided to give the starting setter position to freshman Jordyn Poulter.

“It wasn’t what I really wanted to be doing because it wasn’t what I had been doing for three years before,” Viliunas said. “It was something that I had to figure out throughout the season. I put my ego to the side and did what was best for the team. That’s sort of what I’m doing on the basketball team.”

In the minimal playing time she did have in the basketball season, Viliunas mainly sets ball screens. She said the atmosphere in State Farm Center can be more nerve-wracking on the court because of how spread out everything is. She had gotten used to competing at Huff Hall, where the fans are close to the action.

Viliunas recorded one other stat besides logging minutes this season in Illinois’ loss to Indiana. She managed to secure a rebound in the final seconds, which she claims came as a result of a block that went unnoticed by the stat keepers.

“They didn’t record my block, which I’m a little disappointed about,” Viliunas said. “I felt like that was my highlight because that was like a volleyball skill that I translated into basketball. I actually sort of spiked it, which was really funny for me to think about.”

With the ball in her hands for the only time this season, Viliunas quickly “chucked it” to teammate Kennedy Cattenhead before the opposing players could get it from her.

She describes the moment as scary but a good learning experience, much like the rest of the season which pushed her outside her comfort zone. Although she hasn’t done much on the court, the experience of being on a team again made it worth it.

Her contributions to the basketball squad didn’t go unnoticed — Viliunas, like every other senior on the team, was recognized during Illinois’ Senior Night on Feb. 13. It was an honor she didn’t expect, but was more than happy to receive.

“I was sort of along for the ride,” Viliunas said. “I didn’t even think that I was going to be honored, and then when I got a plaque with my jersey in there and a picture of me with my name on it, I was surprised, but it was awesome.”

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