Illinois volleyball

The Illinois volleyball team celebrates Sunday night in the Orange Krush Club at State Farm Center after hearing its named called during the NCAA tournament selection show. The Illini will face West Virginia in the opening round on Friday.

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CHAMPAIGN — The Illinois volleyball team gathered in the Orange Krush Club at State Farm Center on Sunday night not wondering if it would hear its named called during the NCAA tournament selection show.

That was basically a foregone conclusion. The Illini went 20-11 in the regular season, finished in the top half of the Big Ten, had a strong RPI and an even stronger strength of schedule. They were in. No real doubt about it, which was made clear when a 14-14 South Carolina team with an RPI in the 40s was announced as one of the 64 teams in the bracket.

It was just a matter of when the selection show hosts would say “Illinois” and where the NCAA tournament selection committee would send the Illini for the first round. The former took until almost the end of the bracket reveal. The latter has Illinois headed to Lexington, Ky., to face West Virginia at 4 p.m. Friday in the first round with a potential matchup with reigning national champions (and host) Kentucky in the second round on Saturday.

“We were expecting to be in, but just had no idea where we were going or who we were going to play,” Illinois senior opposite Megan Cooney said. “So it’s still really exciting to be able to come here together as a team, watch this and experience it all together. … I think we prepare ourselves all season to play against all these different teams with different skills. I think the Big Ten really prepares us for that. I’m super excited and trust in all of our training that we’ve had to go out and compete starting this (coming) weekend.”

Illinois is back in the NCAA tournament after missing out in the delayed, curtailed field “2020” tournament that happened this past spring. It’s the fourth NCAA tournament appearance in five seasons under coach Chris Tamas, with the 2018 team reaching the Final Four.

“It shows how much hard work we put in to get back in the tournament,” Cooney said about this year’s bid. “That’s ultimately the goal throughout the entire season is to end up in the tournament and just continue to keep working and do some damage.

“This season we’ve been very successful and shows a lot of hard work we’ve put in. I’m very grateful that I’ve been here for my fifth year to help get this team to where we are now. It’s been a full team effort, and I’m just excited to have been a part of this and see our program change in just a short couple months.”

Illinois enters the NCAA tournament off a win in its regular-season finale Friday at Michigan State. But November was an up and down month for the Illini. After finishing October with four consecutive victories, including a signature win at Penn State to cap that streak, Illinois went 4-4 in November, losing exclusively to teams that also made the NCAA tournament.

“I actually learned we’re really resilient,” Tamas said. “We had some sickness and injuries, and we were still able to get a lot of good work done. … We took care of business where we needed to and really did a lot of good things with a lot of different players on the court. We’re back to a place where we’re healthy again. We just had a really nice weekend and really nice last match against Michigan State. We look forward to taking that into the tournament.”

Cooney saw the same from her team. The final month of the season was a challenge, with Illinois getting swept by Nebraska, Minnesota and Ohio State at Huff Hall. Three wins in their final four matches, though, generated the right kind of momentum.

“I think that the last part of the Big Ten season is always tough because you’ve been going at it for so long,” Cooney said. “For our team to have a couple losses but keep pursuing and just keep working and grinding every day and be able to have some wins toward the end is huge and says a lot about our team and how we’re just willing to keep fighting and keep grinding through even when we may have some down games or some losses in there.”

Scott Richey is a reporter covering college basketball at The News-Gazette. His email is srichey@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@srrichey).

College/Prep Sports Reporter

Scott Richey is a reporter covering college basketball at The News-Gazette. His email is srichey@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@srrichey).

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