Horizon-champ UIC, used to pressure, plays No. 1 Louisville in NCAA tourney

If there is a secret formula for getting mid-major volleyball programs to the NCAA Tournament, Justin Ingram seems to have found it.

At Southern Illinois, Ingram led the Salukis to their first tournament in his fourth season. Now in his fifth season a little farther north, at Illinois-Chicago, Ingram has the Flames in their first NCAA Tournament after leading them to their first Horizon League title.

UIC’s prize? A date with No. 1 overall seed Louisville (28-0) on Friday in the opening round. The winner gets the winner of Ball State vs. Michigan.

A daunting task, for sure. But Ingram and his players are ready for the challenge.

UIC coach Justin Ingram during the HL final/UIC photo

“There may be some nerves at the beginning, and I think that’s natural,” Ingram said. “The metaphor ‘we’re playing with house money’ is absolutely true right now. We don’t have anything to lose. So we’re playing with what we have earned so far, and it’s just up to us to enjoy it and go compete.

“We have the talent to compete with most teams in the country.”

Whether the Flames can compete with Louisville remains to be seen, but they aren’t backing down. For one thing, they have shown the ability to win five-set matches. UIC won its final regular-season match — against Horizon League foe Robert Morris — and all three conference tournament matches in five sets.

“I don’t know why this team feels so comfortable going to five with any team,” said senior outside Paola Santiago, a native of Puerto Rico who was the Horizon League Tournament MVP. “The girls like the excitement and fun of going to five sets and it being a battle between the teams.”

Santiago often leads those battles. She average 3.83 kills and 2.58 digs per set.

“She’s so impactful for what we do,” Ingram said. “She’s our best receiver. She’s our best attacker. She’s our best blocker, and she’s our best digger. Her goals are to go on afterward and play professionally. Easily she can have that ability if she wants it.”

Outside Martina Delucchi, a sophomore from Argentina, averages 3.36 kills and 2.93 digs per set.

The Flames also are strong in the middle with sophomores Zahria Woodard and Becca Oldendorf. Oldendorf, the Horizon League freshman of the year last season, averages just less than a block per set, and Woodard averages 0.73 per set. Oldendorf also averages 2.00 kills per set, and Woodard 1.55.

UIC also features one of the tournament’s most intriguing players: freshman Salma Abdelhady. A native of Cairo, Egypt, Abdelhady stands 6-foot-10 and has developed into a serviceable part of UIC’s rotation.

She averages 1.46 kills per set and is hitting .248 with 47 blocks. In the regular-season finale against Robert Morris, she had 24 kills (.455) and four blocks. She contributed 27 kills and 13 blocks — including nine against Green Bay — in the Horizon League Tournament.

“There had to be some significant changes that happened in order for her to add to the game,” Ingram said. “Otherwise, it was a wash early in the season to where some of the errors were just as impactful as some of the points she was scoring.

“Now the scale is sliding quite a bit different, and she is doing far more positive things and really using her length as a defender and as an attacker.”

Sophomore libero/defensive specialist Jaclyn Oblena averages 3.79 digs per set and also has 30 aces.

If there’s a theme to be gleaned from UIC’s story, it is the team’s youth. Many of the key players will be back next season.

Santiago, although a senior, will take advantage of her extra year and return. If nothing else, this voyage in the NCAA Tournament will serve as a building block for the program.

“I’m going with the mentality to learn because it’s a new level that we’re going to experience,” Santiago said. “We have not experienced the top level that we’re going to play against, so I’m just going with the mentality to learn and have fun with my teammates and have a good experience.

“I’m not trying to overthink much about what’s going to happen, rather just enjoy the experience.”

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