CHAMPAIGN — It’s been two years since the Illinois volleyball team last played in an NCAA tournament, but roster turnover can have a way of making recent postseason experience a moot issue.
If the No. 18 Illini appeared to be not quite themselves all the time Friday night, perhaps that’s understandable.
“You know, a lot of these guys, it’s their first time playing in the tournament ... and it looked that way,” UI coach Kevin Hambly said.
In the end, Illinois settled down and played more like a team that is the No. 13 seed in the tournament, fending off Ohio Valley Conference champion Morehead State 25-22, 25-21, 25-16 in front of 2,698 fans at Huff Hall.
Of the 12 Illini players who made it onto the floor, eight were making their collegiate postseason debut. And of the remaining four, only three had substantial previous NCAA tournament experience.
“I felt we were a little shaky to start,” Hambly said. “I thought we were anxious. It looked like the team was pressing too hard and trying to score fast.
“I thought about halfway through the second set ... that we started to become relaxed.”
Just in time to finish off the persistent Eagles (27-8), who proved to be a handful at times for the Illini (17-14).
“We’ll take a win against these guys,” Hambly said with a tone of relief in his voice. “They’re tough.”
By all appearances, Illini outside hitter Jocelynn Birks was unaffected by the high-stakes environment. In her NCAA tournament debut, the Illini redshirt sophomore produced the 23rd double-double of her career (match-high 16 kills, 12 digs) while hitting .308 in 39 swings.
“Joss did awesome,” Illini libero Jennifer Beltran (team-high 14 digs) said. “She just hits over the block, and she’s been hitting some really great shots and playing awesome defense.”
Illinois never led by more than five points in the first two sets and found itself behind 14-13 in the second set. However, Beltran said it wasn’t because the Illini had taken the midmajor Eagles lightly.
“I don’t think so,” the UI senior and starter on the 2011 NCAA runner-up team said. “I mean, every team in the tournament, they are used to winning so we expect every team to come out there with that mentality that they’re going to win.
“It’s something that we definitely talked about prior to the match, and the whole week, because it’s something we have to remind ourselves. That’s why the tournament’s not easy and anything can happen. ... That’s why we have to come out prepared.”
Next up for the Illini is an opponent that should be easy to respect. No. 22 Marquette (26-5) extended its winning streak to 15 matches earlier Friday at Huff with a sweep of Louisville. The Golden Eagles, who entered the night ranked 10th in the nation in hitting percentage, hit .305 and limited their unforced hitting errors to three against the Cardinals.
“They can be extremely efficient,” Hambly said. “We need to serve tough and get them out of system. When they’re in system they’re really tough.”
Perhaps speaking more for her tournament-new teammates than herself, Birks said she’s confident the Illini will be more relaxed and focused in Round 2.
“I think the first-time jitters of playing in the tournament — and being in Huff in general sometimes can get really crazy — so I think we’ll be more prepared (tonight),” Birks said.
Marquette 3, Louisville 0. The potent attack carried the Golden Eagles past Louisville 25-23, 25-22, 25-19 in Friday’s opening match.
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 three unforced errors. Marquette’s attack was directed by setter Elizabeth Koberstein, the Big East Player of the Year, who totaled 43 assists. The Golden Eagles entered ranked 10th in the nation in hitting percentage at .286.
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 (23-8) with 11 kills apiece.