Final: Illinois wins 25-22, 25-21, 25-16
No. 18 Illinois moves on the NCAA tournament with a first-round sweep of Morehead State Friday night at Huff Hall.
It wasn't always easy, although the Illini were more in command in the final set.
Illinois (17-14) will face Marquette (26-5) at 7 tonight in the second round.
Illini outside hitter Jocelynn Birks finished with a match-high 16 kills and produced a double-double with 12 digs.
The Illini hit .265 to .183 for Ohio Valley champion Morehead State (27-8).
Check back later for a complete game story.
Set 2: Illinois 25, Morehead State 21
Hero: Liz McMahon
The Illini right-side hitter had a terrific Set 2, belting 5 kills in eight swings and producing the clinching point to end an Eagles rally.
Goat: Morganne Criswell
The outside hitter's play isn't costing her team, but the Illini junior continues to struggle mightily on the attack. In Set 2, Criswell had one kill in 10 swings. For the match, she's hitting minus-.053 in 19 swings with two kills.
What I'm thinking:
-- Illini fans probably assumed No. 18 Illinois would roll against Morehead State. Instead, the Ohio Valley champions have been a handful. And persistent. When Illinois took a 24-19 lead in Set 2, the Eagles twice fended off set points before McMahon finally ended it.
-- Right-side hitter Alex Fitzmorris has been impressive for MSU. The junior is hitting .533 in 15 swings and has eight kills.
-- Good thing for the Illini that Jocelynn Birks is on her game tonight. Her match-high 10 kills have been critical for Illinois in taking a 2-0 lead.
-- Illinois hit .135 in Set 2, but somehow pulled out the win. s
Set 1: Illinois 25, Morehead State 22
Hero: Jocelynn Birks
The Illini's All-Big Ten pick was super efficient, producing six kills and hitting .545 in 11 swings.
Goat: Morehead State servers
The Eagles could have put even more pressure on Illinois if they had kept their serves in play. Instead, they gave Illinois four free points.
What I'm thinking:
-- The Illini had their hands full in Set 1, making for some nervous moments for their fans, before pulling out a victory. One thing to keep in mind is that this is the first NCAA tournament for all but four of the UI players.
-- Morganne Criswell, subject of our story today in The News-Gazette and on IlliniHQ is off to a brutal start. The Illini outside hitter had one kill and two errors in nine swings and is hitting minus-.111.
-- Illini libero Jennifer Beltran already has nine digs.
We now know the identity of one of the teams in Saturday's second-round NCAA tournament match at Huff Hall. No. 22 Marquette swept Louisville 25-23, 25-22, 25-19. The Warriors (26-5) will take a 15-match winning streak into the next round against this winner of Illinois vs. Morehead State. Louisville ended its season with a 23-8 record.
The Golden Eagles hit .305, and all four Marquette players who took at least 17 swings hit over .300 in the sweep. Meghan Niemann (.346) and Big East Conference Freshman of the Year Autumn Bailey (.306) each finished with a match-high 13 kills. Lindsey Gosh (.346) added nine kills and Nele Barber (.353) contributed eight.
The Golden Eagles limited their errors to nine in 118 swings, including merely three unforced errors. Marquette’s attack was directed by setter Elizabeth Koberstein, the Big East Player of the Year, who totaled 43 assists.
Julie Jeziorowski recorded a match-high 15 digs for Marquette, while teammate Teal Schnurr had five block assists.
Brooke Mattingly and Emily Juhl paced Louisville with 11 kills apiece.
Welcome to our live report from Huff Hall for tonight’s NCAA tournament first-round match between No. 18 Illinois and Morehead State.
The Illini (16-14) enter with late-season momentum, having won seven of their last nine matches. That surge elevated their stock with the NCAA selection committee, which awarded coach Kevin Hambly’s program a No. 13 seed and the first- and second-round hosting rights that come with being a national seed (top 16).
Morehead State (27-7) earned the Ohio Valley’s automatic bid by winning its conference tournament. The Eagles also were the OVC regular-season champion after rolling to a 15-1 record in the league race.
This will be the first meeting between the teams, but Illinois has plenty of history against the OVC. The Illini are 28-6 all-time against current Ohio Valley members. The last time Illinois faced an OVC team was also in the NCAA tournament, defeating Austin Peay in three sets in the first round in 2010.
This is the 21st time the Illini are competing in an NCAA tournament and the 15th time they are hosting in the first round.
Illinois enters 32-20 all-time in the NCAA tournament, but its home record is an off-the-charts 24-3. The last time the Illini lost a postseason home match was in 2001, when Arizona prevailed in four sets in the second round.
Illinois is back in the tournament after a one-year absence, and there isn’t a lot of postseason experience on the current roster. Merely four Illini players have seen the floor in the NCAA tournament, and one — senior defensive specialist Courtney Abrahamovich — has played in one set, back in 2010. The experience factor is something worth keeping an eye on as Illinois tries to progress through the tournament.
An up-and-down Illini season hasn’t reduced interest in the program. In fact, Illinois volleyball is in reach of setting a new record for average attendance in a season. The UI enters tonight averaging 3,037 fans in 13 home matches, just off the 3,098 average in 1998 for 17 home dates. Should Illinois win twice this weekend, it has a chance to really swell its home attendance numbers since it will play as many as two more home dates as the host of an NCAA regional semifinal and final on Dec. 13-14 at State Farm Center. Hambly has said in recent years that his goal was to get the program to a point where crowds of 3,000 or more were a regular occurrence at home matches. Huff Hall’s capacity is listed at 4,050.
A little more background on Morehead State: Five members of the current team have NCAA tournament experience, having played in a 2011 match at Purdue in which the Eagles lost in three sets. This will be the program’s second NCAA appearance.
MSU has won four straight OVC regular-season titles and had won 36 straight OVC regular-season matches until that streak was snapped at Eastern Kentucky on Nov. 13.
Libero Leslie Schellhaas was a four-time OVC Defensive Player of the Week honoree this year and set the MSU career digs record during the OVC Championship match. She enters with a career mark of 2,216 digs, one more than previous record holder Kristina Schoo (2006-09).
Senior outside hitter Aryn Bohannon became the 10th player in program history to join the 1,000-kill/1,000-dig club earlier this season.
Starting setter junior Colbey Cameron suffered an injury and missed all three OVC tournament matches, but the Eagles didn’t miss a beat thanks to freshman Bailey Nichol. The former Normal University High standout stepped in and was named to the All-Tournament Team after averaging 10.1 assists per set. She’s the younger sister of Purdue setter/outside hitter Val Nichol.
MSU can be tough to score on. The Eagles led the OVC in opponent hitting percentage for the third straight year, limiting foes to a .137 attack percentage.
We’ll update this report after each set, so be sure to check back.