CHAMPAIGN — The Illinois volleyball team was braced for the possibility Sunday night that it would have to open the NCAA tournament on the road.
A three-set loss to No. 11 Minnesota 24 hours earlier seemingly had dashed the Illini’s hopes of playing the first two rounds at Huff Hall.
“I think most of us thought we were definitely not hosting,” junior right-side hitter Liz McMahon said.
Gathered at UI coach Kevin Hambly’s house to watch the televised unveiling of the 64-team bracket, the No. 18 Illini happily learned the NCAA tournament selection committee had taken a broader view. A view that deemed Illinois worthy of a No. 13 seed and the hosting rights that come with being a national seed (top 16).
“I was surprised,” Hambly said. “I didn’t think we’d host after losing to Minnesota. I knew there was a chance, but (I’m) a little surprised. But also thrilled. It’s nice to be at home.”
If the Illini (16-14) can make it through the first two rounds, they already know they will remain in Champaign for as many as two more matches. The UI is one of four sites that will be hosting regional semifinals and finals at State Farm Center on Dec. 13-14.
To get there, however, Illinois will need to win twice this weekend at Huff, starting with Friday’s 7 p.m. match against Morehead State (27-7). The winner of that match will face the Louisville-Marquette survivor in the second round at 7 p.m. Saturday.
“This was a really neat surprise,” McMahon said of opening the tournament at home. “Definitely really happy with the opportunity to play at Huff. Huff’s the best, and it’s just a great advantage.”
Although the Illini have a modest 8-5 home record, context is necessary. The defeats came against the Nos. 1, 2, 3, 8 and 10 NCAA tournament seeds.
“I’m excited to be at home,” Hambly said. “Hopefully we’ll get a good crowd turnout. And when Huff’s rockin’ it’s a tough place to play. And that will give us a little bit of an advantage, and hopefully we can take advantage of that and control our nerves.”
Hambly and his staff now will dive into research on their first opponent, as well as the other two teams headed to Champaign.
Morehead State earned the Ohio Valley Conference’s automatic bid by winning the league’s tournament. The Eagles are 9-3 in road matches this season.
When asked what he knew about Morehead State, Hambly replied: “Not much. We’ll find out. We know the coaches ... but I don’t know anything about their system and how they’re playing. Give me a couple days.”
Hambly said two factors likely swayed the committee to award Illinois a national seed.
“It had to be the schedule,” he said. “We had the toughest strength of schedule (in the nation). And finishing fourth in the conference. Usually the (league’s) top four teams will get a seed. That’s how it’s been.
“So I think where we finished in the conference and strength of schedule kind of put us over the top.”