McMahon, Illini book Sweet 16 return
CHAMPAIGN — In 2012, an Illinois volleyball team just one year removed from an NCAA runner-up finish was on the outside looking in at tournament time.
Turns out it was a temporary hiccup. Next stop for Kevin Hambly’s No. 18 Illini? A regional semifinal on their own campus next weekend at State Farm Center.
“It is cool to be back in the Sweet 16,” junior Liz McMahon said after helping Illinois take that major step Saturday night with a four-set, second-round victory against No. 22 Marquette at Huff Hall. “It’s an unbelievable feeling. Just the atmosphere in the tournament is so different than anything else.”
The Illini (18-14), who advanced to the regionals for the fifth time in six years, will face No. 19 and Big Ten rival Purdue at 6 p.m. Friday.
After a rocky Set 1 against a red-hot Golden Eagles team, Illinois steadied itself and rolled from there to a 19-25, 25-17, 25-13, 25-13 victory in front of 3,057 fans.
Big East champion Marquette (26-6) had won 15 consecutive matches and 21 of its last 22 before hitting an Illini roadblock.
A look at the Champaign Regional, which will be held at State Farm Center:
Florida St. (26-7) vs. Wisconsin (25-9), 4 p.m.
Illinois (18-14) vs. Purdue (22-11), 6 p.m.
Winners, 5:30 p.m.
“I’m just proud of the way we competed (Saturday night),” said McMahon, a starter on the Illini’s 2011 NCAA title-match qualifier.
With McMahon (17 kills) and two teammates hitting over .400, Illinois hit .319 en route to its ninth win in the last 11 matches. But the bigger story was how the Illini defense fared against a Marquette attack that entered the tournament No. 10 in the nation in hitting percentage.
With Illinois racking up 13 blocks, Marquette was limited to .163 hitting, and in the final two sets was virtually smothered — hitting .097 and .000.
“I thought we played really good defense against a really tough offensive team,” Hambly said. “They’re really an efficient team, and we almost held them to zero in the last two sets.”
Middle blocker Anna Dorn had one solo block and five block assists to lead the Illini defense at the net. Illinois also received five block assists from right-side hitter McMahon and from freshman middle blocker Katie Stadick, who came off the bench to give her team a lift on the attack as well (four kills in seven swings).
“It was huge offensively and defensively,” McMahon said of Stadick’s contributions. “She came in and stuffed the ball like right away. It was pretty awesome.”
Outside hitter Jocelynn Birks, who led the Illini in kills in the first round, produced a match-high 19 against Marquette.