Illinois volleyball earns berth in NCAA tournament, will take on West Virginia in first round

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Ryan Ash

Megan Cooney celebrates with her teammates during Illinois’ match against Purdue on Oct. 6 at Huff Hall. The Illini will face West Virginia in the first round of the NCAA tournament this weekend.

By Jackson Janes, Sports Editor

For the first time since 2019, Illinois volleyball is back in the postseason, earning a berth in the NCAA tournament, which will begin this weekend.

The Illini (20-11 overall, 12-8 Big Ten) finished the regular season last week with a 3-1 loss at Michigan on Wednesday before bouncing back with a sweep of Michigan State in East Lansing on Friday and sit in seventh place in the final conference standings.

Illinois will travel to Lexington, Kentucky, to play West Virginia in the first round on Friday, and it’ll take on either No. 7 Kentucky or Southeast Missouri State if it advances to Round 2.

After an underwhelming COVID-shortened season last year that saw the Illini finish 7-11, they opened their fall campaign on a strong note with the return of nonconference play. Illinois went 8-3 before even starting Big Ten competition, picking up wins over 2020 NCAA tournament teams Missouri and Illinois State in straight sets.

Starting its conference schedule with wins over Iowa and Northwestern, Illinois rolled out of West Lafayette with a five-set upset win over then-No. 4 Purdue on Oct. 1, opening Big Ten action with a 3-0 record for the first time since 2018.

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    The Illini then went on a three-match skid, falling twice to the Wisconsin Badgers and once to the Boilermakers in Champaign, though they bounced back with wins in five of their next six matches, with the only loss coming to then-No.9 Nebraska on the road on Oct. 16. That run also included the team’s second road upset of the season, this time pulling out a four-set victory in University Park against then-No. 13 Penn State on Oct. 30.

    Following the team’s win over the Nittany Lions, the Illini struggled in their four-game homestand, losing three of the four matches in straight sets, though each of the defeats came against ranked teams: then-No. 9 Nebraska, then-No. 11 Minnesota and No. 10 Ohio State.

    Illinois then closed the season with three wins out of four, sweeping Indiana and Michigan State on the road and Maryland at home on Senior Day. 

    Sophomore Raina Terry was the biggest weapon on the Illini offense, notching a career-high 391 kills, while the Ohio native also led the Big Ten in service aces per set (0.47). Graduate student Megan Cooney also surpassed the 300-kill mark in her final regular season with 344 kills on a .261 kill while setting a career-high with 29 aces, and junior Jessica Nunge, who transferred to Illinois from Florida State this offseason, finished her first regular season in Champaign with 295 kills and 32 aces, both of which were the third-best marks on the team.

    Senior Taylor Kuper dominated at libero, finishing sixth in the conference in aces (0.39 per set) and fifth in digs (4.51 per set). Redshirt junior Diana Brown also stood out as one of the Big Ten’s top setters, ending the regular season with the sixth-most assists per set (10.25).

    Middle blockers Kennedy Collins, Kyla Swanson and Maddie Whittington all played big roles on both offense and defense, with Collins leading the way with a career-high 256 kills and a team-high 118 blocks, also a career best. Swanson wasn’t far behind with 127 kills and 93 blocks, while Whittington notched 38 kills and 31 blocks despite playing in just 11 matches this season.

    Illinois heads to Lexington looking for its first postseason win since 2018 after falling to Utah in five sets in the first round in 2019. The Illini will take on the Mountaineers on Friday, though the time has yet to be announced.

     

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