Illini volleyball drops two matches on East Coast

The Illinois volleyball team is finding positives in what most would consider a negative weekend.

In its final nonconference weekend of the season, the No. 16 Illini (4-6) dropped two matches to No. 15 North Carolina (10-0) and Duke (9-2).

“Friday night (against North Carolina) we were not ourselves at all, and Saturday (against Duke) it just wasn’t enough to get the win,” junior outside hitter Liz McMahon said. “We’re still learning how to play as a unit and we were just inconsistent.”

The Illini lost in three sets (25-18, 25-15, 25-17) to a North Carolina team that outplayed them in every aspect. When asked about the match, McMahon said the Illini didn’t do anything well.

“The challenge was much more ourselves,” Illinois head coach Kevin Hambly said. “They’re a good team and I’m not taking anything away from North Carolina, but we didn’t come out ready to attack them and they came out with a fire in their eyes. They came out ready to come after us and we backed down, which I cant say we’ve done this year. We didn’t perform well, we were never really even in the match.”

The Illini came back ready to play Saturday and took the first set from Duke 25-19. From there though, Illinois’ inconsistency showed again as the team dropped the next three sets to the Blue Devils (27-25, 25-18, 25-21). Hambly said the team let the second set slip away, and that the team should have had a 2-0 set lead.

“We had opportunities, we just didn’t make plays,” Hambly said.

The Illini didn’t see the Duke match as a total loss, as the team battled defensively with the Blue Devils and showed intensity not seen against North Carolina.

“I thought on Saturday especially we didn’t quit at all,” McMahon said. “We played as a team defensively. We were really scrappy defensively and that’s what we pride ourselves on and what we work for. I think the team’s passion was really strong Saturday.”

A major bright spot on the weekend for the Illini was the play of junior outside hitter Morganne Criswell, who had 20 kills and 16 digs over the weekend.

“She did well,” Hambly said. “She was our leading point scorer against Duke and our go-to player. We know she can score, we needed her to do the other stuff well and she was doing that. She struggled at times blocking, but she passed well enough and she was taking big swings. I think she did a nice job.”

Despite dropping to under .500 for the first time this season with the losses, Criswell still feels Illinois is getting better.

“I would definitely say we’re moving in the right direction,” Criswell said. “We’re improving with every weekend. I think we’re looking good and I think that we can only go up.”

The Illini will open conference play this weekend at home against Iowa and Nebraska. After making it through what was arguably the toughest nonconference schedule Illinois has ever faced, McMahon said Illinois is ready to put the past behind and build on what it has learned so far.

“It’s a new weekend and a clean slate,” McMahon said. “We learned a lot in preconference because of the hard teams. I think we’re ready to put those lessons into use and show the Big Ten what we’re made of one match at a time.”

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