Illini volleyball ready to take on No. 2 Minnesota

By Lucas Wright

The inevitable has finally come for the Illinois volleyball team — it has to face a Big Ten powerhouse in the NCAA Tournament.

Following the team’s wins over Southern Illinois in the first round and No. 15 Louisville in the second, the Illini will meet the top seed in their half of the bracket: the Minnesota Golden Gophers.

The No. 2 Gophers went on a tear to end the season and have continued their success into the NCAA Tournament. Minnesota has won 19 of its last 20 chmatches, including an Oct. 3 matchup with the Illini in Minnesota, where the Gophers came back from 2-1 down to defeat the Illini in five sets.

Head coach Kevin Hambly said that the Illini have looked at the film from the October meeting closely, but are keeping in mind that the Illini and the Gophers have both evolved over that period of time.

“We have 17 more matches of theirs since then that we have looked at,” Hambly said. “We are a different team than they saw, and we’re playing a completely different lineup, so we’ll have to keep that in mind.”

The Illini definitely became a different team over the final stretch of the season, losing four of six matches and limping their way into the postseason. Once in the tournament, the Illini have stabilized and have looked to a familiar name to lead the charge.

Senior Jocelynn Birksch has taken over for the Illini through the first two games of the tournament, totaling 37 kills and 25 digs chover the two-game stretch. Her team has taken notice, and junior Katie Stadick said the team is falling in line behind its leader.

“She has been swinging high and hard,” Stadick said. “Jordyn (Poulter) has been doing great finding her and getting her the ball, and our passers have been doing a great job getting it up to Jordyn to set up Jocelynn.”

This match could be the career finale for Illinois’ all-time kills leader. This season marks Birks’ third appearance in the Sweet 16 — the Illini have lost in the same round in the last two seasons.

Along with Birks, Poulter has been in control during the tournament, dictating offense through the first two rounds. Poulter is averaging 40 assists per match and 11.4 assists per set. She has also been stuffing the rest of the stat sheet, adding 9.5 digs, 2.5 kills and 4 blocks per game.ch

Even though Illinois is up against huge odds in the matchup with the Gophers — The Gophers have yet to drop a set in the tournament — Hambly said the team is more than ready to go head-to-head with the No. 2 seed.

“We’ve got a little bounce,” Hambly said. “We feel like, bring on whoever’s in front of us.”

The Illini will take to the court Friday, Dec. 11 at 5 p.m. to battle with the Gophers in Des Moines, Iowa. The winner of the match will play Saturday and take the on the winner of the Penn State-Hawaii matchup.

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