And here’s the nightcap, a matchup out of the SEC. These two teams figure to be pretty evenly matched, even though Tennessee is currently in the national rankings at #25 and Kentucky is unranked.
The homestanding Wildcats snapped a four-match losing streak (which included matches with Nebraska and Florida, and the pretty good Oklahoma Sooners along with a five-setter against LSU) by beating SEC newcomers Texas A&M in five sets. They haven’t played as many matches as most teams in the nation, coming into tonight with only a 6-5 record, though they do boast a sweep win over North Carolina in that number. Senior outside hitter Ashley Frazier is the Wildcats’ top scorer, averaging just over three kills per set. Junior middle blocker Alexandra Morgan is the most efficient hitter, coming into tonight’s match at a sweet .328 clip. She also averages more than a block per set. Another big contributor for Kentucky is two-time SEC Libero of the Year Stephanie Klefot running the defense. She’s aided by fellow back-row specialist Jessi Greenberg, who the color commentator suggested was probably good enough to be a starting libero at any other school in the league.
The Lady Vols, who have their very own website (not only a section on an athletics site), enter at 9-4 and 2-2 in the SEC. Towering outside hitters Leslie Cikra and Tiffany Baker are Tennessee’s top scorers, and 2011 SEC Player of the Year Kelsey Robinsonmakes for an even more imposing front-line.Tennessee runs a two-setter offense like some other teams, but they don’t tend to utilize either as blockers — Mary Polmiller and Bianca Arellano are both most active in back-row rotations for the Lady Vols. Oh god, I just realized, the Vols/Volleyball puns that must rampant through this program. Yikes!
The match started out very evenly. The teams traded sideouts for a while. A service ace for Kentucky’s Lauren O’Conner was the first point either side took on serve, at 3-3, and then another gave Kentucky the advantage. Tennessee’s libero Ellen Mullins had a difficult match on serve receive, especially in the first set. Kentucky took the first three-point lead of the set at 9-6 when Tennessee failed to legally send over a free ball, and looking back, that was kind of a harbinger of how the rest of the night was gonna go. After O’Conner smashed a bad overpass from the Tennessee side, the Lady Vols called time.
One of the longest points of the match was the first back from timeout, with Whitney Billings, one of the big stars of the match, putting it away for the Wildcats off the block and out. The run extended to 12-6, and while they traded points a little from there, another Wildcat mini-run put them up big at 16-8. It’s tough to come back from an 8-point deficit in volleyball. That run culminated with another big smash from O’Conner, off the block of Tennessee’s Baker and out. Robinson finally got her first kill of the match afterward, but the damage was long since done. Much of Tennessee’s scoring in the first set was handed to them, as the Wildcats committed five service errors in set number one. They played some strong defense and had some long rallies, but their offense just sputtered. When the Lady Vols finally sided out at 22-14, it felt like only about the second or third time they had actually done so themselves (rather than being given the sideout on a Wildcat error). After a service ace, they gave it right back up with an error of their own, and Kentucky easily closed out the set on Klefot’s serve 25-15.
Frankly, it felt even less competitive than 25-15. Kentucky hit .258 in the first set, with 9 kills and just one error on 31 total swings (remember, there were a lot of long rallies). Tennessee actually managed to have a negative hitting percentage as a team for the first set. It’s bad when an individual has a negative hitting percentage — it’s gruesome when a team does. The Lady Vols had just 7 kills to go with 10 attack errors on 34 total swings, to end up .088 in the red. Kentucky checked in with five team blocks in the first set. It was just an utter domination, and only Kentucky’s five service errors kept it even looking as competitive as it did.
Tennessee took the first two points of the second set, on a rare bad pass from Klefot on serve receive leading to an easy ball at the net, and then a bad set from Christine Hartmann (who otherwise played a solid match) being called as a ball-handling error. Kills from Billings and O’Conner helped to draw the set even at 3. Tennessee went up 5-3 on the heels of another Wildcat service error, though to their credit they clamped down on those (this was the only one they had in the second set, and they had only one in the remainder of the match as well). For a while, Tennessee maintained their lead, going up by three for the first time at 9-6 with a block led by Kayla Jeter.
From there, though, Kentucky fought back with a four-point run to take the lead at 10-9. This run featured a couple of really great kills — Billings made a really intelligent soft shot through a seam in the block to get it to 9-8, and then Sara Schwarzwalder tied it at 9 with a smash off the quick set from Hartmann. A Tennessee hitting error put them behind, and they looked to be playing out of system a lot from this point on. Tennessee tied it again at 10, 11, 12, 14, 15, 16, and 19, showing at least that they were improving over set number one, but they never again took the lead. From 19-19, Kentucky quickly rolled off two points on either side of a Wildcat timeout to go up 23-19. A ball handling error called against Hartmann (her last of the night) and an overpass from the back row gave Tennessee two easy points to close to 23-21. Kentucky called time at that point, and Billings got the ‘Cats to set point on an immaculate slide play (example of a slide play, for reference), which she really did all night. A rejection of Baker (who had a dreadful match) put the Wildcats up 2 sets to none with a 25-21 win in the second.
Kentucky’s near-perfect execution continued into the third set. Behind Billings and that very same slide play, they took a quick 4-1 advantage and never looked back. Behind kills from Morgan (who had a phenomenal match), Billings, Schwarzwelder, and Hartmann on the sneaky dink, Kentucky’s advantage extended to 11-6, at which point the direction the match was going started to seem crystal clear.
Tennessee got as close as two at 12-10 on a block led by Cikra, but they would come no closer. It just seemed like for every point the Lady Vols got, the Wildcats were getting two or even three. They ran to 14-11, 16-12, and 19-13 before Tennessee made a little minirun. Jeter made a nice soft shot to the line past the leaping Kentucky block to get it to 19-15, and an overpass from Kentucky got it to 20-16. Cikra and DeeDee Harrison, who quite anonymously had a very solid match, put up a double block to get the Lady Vols back to within three at 22-19. A very long rally on 23-20 led to Kentucky’s first match point, and they put it away with a soaring double block. It was the Wildcats’ first sweep of the Lady Vols in 17 years.
Kentucky d. #25 Tennessee (25-15, 25-21, 25-20)
It’s not a huge shock that Kentucky won; considering they were the home team they probably should have even been considered slight favorites. But winning in three straight sets, none of them terribly competitive (and the first quite non-competitive) is a bit of a shock. This will certainly knock the Lady Vols out of the national rankings, and I’d hope it at least gets the Wildcats a few votes. It was a dominant win against a quality opponent. But they weren’t perfect. There was still some room for improvement, at least in setting up the offense (offensive execution and defense were pretty close to perfect). They gave up a few easy points at the net on overpasses and iffy serve reception. The good news for them is it was only a few.
Tennessee is without doubt a better team than they showed tonight. Baker, Cikra, and especially Robinson all are capable of so much more. I was kind of surprised to see on the stat sheet that the scoring star for Tennessee tonight was Harrison, hitting at a respectable .263 clip with 8 kills and 3 errors on 19 total swings. I really didn’t hear her name called much at all. Robinson matched her 8 kills, but had 4 errors and needed a whopping 37 swings to get there, for a meager .108 hitting percentage. Cikra had as many kills as errors, and thus hit zero for the match. But the big dud was Baker. A hugely disappointing match for her, with just 3 kills and 4 errors on 14 swings for a negative hitting percentage of .071.
The story was much different on the other side of the net. Billings and Morgan, hitting hard and hitting smart, both played all three sets without a hitting error. Billings had 10 kills on 22 swings for a superb .455 hitting percentage, but Morgan outdid her in terms of efficiency. She had 9 kills on 16 swings for an out-of-this-world .562 hitting clip. Billings notched a double-double, something that’s not so easy to do in a sweep, adding 16 digs to her 10 kills. Schwarzwelder also had a very good day hitting, with 6 kills and 2 errors on 13 swings for a .308 hitting percentage. O’Conner wasn’t as efficient, but her 11 kills did lead the team. Kentucky had a solid advantage in blocking, with 9 to the Lady Vols’ 4.
Tennessee, who will surely fall from the national rankings in next week’s poll, fall to 9-5 overall and 2-3 in the SEC. Kentucky is now 8-6 and 2-2 in conference. Tennessee’s next match is at home against SEC newcomers Missouri, and that match is not until Friday next week (October 5). Kentucky, on the other hand, hosts Auburn this Sunday night.