Hullo, there is a LOT of volleyball on the airwaves today. And several matches being aired simultaneously. Several automatic bids get handed out today, so the next bracketology isn’t going to come out until late today or possibly even tomorrow afternoon. I’m gonna focus on this match for an in-depth report since it’s a major conference and is between two legitimately good teams.
Both Marquette and Louisville, top two seeds in the Big East tournament, are NCAA tournament-bound no matter what happens here. The Big East tournament did contain one pretty major upset, when the #6 seed South Florida knocked off the only other Big East team I have in my bracket, Notre Dame (the loss won’t hurt them enough to lose at-large consideration), but otherwise it’s been all chalk. And while I understand why that may make some people view the match as less of a spectacle (as opposed to watching two teams play with their seasons on the line), the fact is this match has context for the NCAA tournament where those matches involving tiny conferences don’t. Louisville will carry a tournament seed, probably win or lose, and this match will go a long way towards determining what that seed will be. Marquette probably can’t sneak into the seeds even with a win, but they can improve their position on the S-curve and get a more favorable tournament draw with a win here.
The Cardinals are led by Uzbek import Lola Arslanbekova, 2-time Big East player of the year, and 3rd in the nation in kills per set. Middle blocker Gwen Rucker is also a big leader for the Cardinals. A first-team all-conference selection, and someone who has seen time with the junior national team, Rucker had the two best hitting nights in the history of the Big East tournament in the quarterfinals and semifinals of this tournament. She tallied downright stupefying marks of .867 and .765 respectively. Louisville libero Caitlin Welch is also a standout, having set the Big East single-season record for digs with her performances this year. For the homestanding Golden Eagles (the tournament was held on Marquette’s home court, though Louisville traveled a good contingent of fans), their leader is senior outside hitter Holly Mertens, who for some reason was not in the starting lineup to begin the first set. Marquette setter Elizabeth Koberstein leads the Big East in assists per set.
Louisville scored first on serve with a great point on 3-2, as Arslanbekova managed to save a wayward ball and allow a teammate to send over a freeball. The Marquette back row made a terrible overpass, though leaving their setter no opportunity to avoid a net violation. Later, though, she tried the same sort of play and sent the ball way beyond her team’s court for an unforced error to put Marquette up 7-5. Neither team sustained an advantage for very long early in the first set, though. One side would go up by 2, and then the other would draw even, and lather, rinse, repeat. Louisville’s front line, led by Arslanbekova, Rucker, and Katie George (a freshman phenom at the setter position) were blocking smoothly and hitting so very hard in the early going, and George’s kill got the Cardinals to a 3-point lead for the first time at 13-10. Their run extended to 15-10 at the TV timeout.
After the run extended to 17-10 after the timeout, Marquette finally sided out on a long rally with a kill from Erin Lehman. The next serve fell harmlessly for an ace in the back-right corner of the court. Louisville’s front-line block was downright stifling in this first set, led by Rucker and Arslanbekova’s countrywoman Tanya Lukyanenko (potential beach volleyball tandem, anyone?). Mertens managed to break through it on 19-14 for a kill, but such a point as that was the exception and not the rule. A couple of more unforced errors on the Louisville side drew Marquette to within three at 20-17, but the Cardinals ran it back to 23-18 at Marquette’s timeout. The Golden Eagles followed the Golden Rule of timeouts, with Dani Carlson getting the kill out of the timeout. The subsequent serve went straight into the net, though, giving Louisville set point. Rucker converted it for the Cardinals after audibly calling for the set.
Both teams came up with big blocks at the outset of set number two, with Marquette proving especially stifling of the Cardinals’ ace hitter Arslanbekova. The Eagles ran out to an early 3-point lead behind their big block and sweet lefty swinger Lindsey Gosh‘s unorthodox line shots (baffling the block). The lead extended to four at 9-5, and Louisville’s timeout, on a big service ace by Carlson that had the Cardinal players running well off the court to go after it — only to knock it further away rather than towards the net! Louisville came out strong out of the timeout, prompting Marquette’s at 10-9. Arslanbekova drew the set even at 11, and Lukyanenko put the Cardinals up for the first time in the second set set the point after. 16-12 may have been the point of the match, with great swinging, digging, and blocking attempts on both sides finally ending with a kill for the Golden Eagles. Gosh, the lefty on the left side, continued to confound the Louisville block both with her hitting speed and directional choices. Louisville took their second timeout tied at 16 after Lukyanenko made consecutive errors, hitting and blocking.
Louisville ran out to 20-18 after the timeout. The Lousville coach Anne Kordes was (fairly quickly) assessed a yellow card on the following rally after arguing a call where it was unclear whether Louisville’s blocker or the ball (off Marquette’s swing) that touched the antenna. The Eagles drew within one at 21-20, but the Cardinals ran back to 23-20 on hits from Rucker, a ‘certified math genius’ according to the play-by-play announcer. Arslanbekova got Louisville to set point at 24-21 with one of her first line shots of the match. The Eagles staved off two, but Brooke Mattingly converted at 24-23 to send the Cardinals to the intermission up two sets to none.
Louisville ran out to 5-2 early, and then went up 4 following a very long rally where it appeared that the Cardinals had won it three or four different times. Such points are exciting to watch, but they rarely result in the team scrambling to save the ball ending up scoring. The Cardinals’ blocking was pretty good, but the defense behind the block was suspect. A lot of standing around and waiting for the ball to reach them, which isn’t the way to keep balls alive. After trailing 8-4, the Eagles drew even at 9 with Carlson leading the way from the middle. And while it wasn’t strictly sideout after sideout, the set remained really even until Rucker’s service ace at 14-14 brought us to the TV timeout.
Marquette came out strong out of that timeout to go up 18-16 and force Louisville’s timeout. Arslanbekova, who had a difficult match at the service line with 4 (pretty bad) service errors, had her best serve of the match on 18-17, to get the Golden Eagles out of system and allow Louisville to tie the score. She got her first back-row kill of the match to put the Cardinals up 21-20, getting past a triple block to prompt Marquette’s timeout. Louisville took the first point after the timeout, but Marquette took the next two, including a pretty gruesome serve receive for an ace from ** on 22-21 to tie it. This got Louisville to call their second and final timeout of the set
A service error put the Cardinals up 23-22, and a pretty ticky-tack call against George knotted it at 23. An emphatic kill from Arslanbekova brought Louisville to match point (or championship point, if you will), but they had to wait out Marquette’s second timeout to play it. The Eagles staved off the first match point with a powerful double block to stifle Arslanbekova. They got another match point with a kill off the hand of Mattingly, and converted after an overpass disrupted Marquette’s offense, leading to a hitting error.
#1 Louisville d. #2 Marquette (25-19, 25-23, 26-24)
This was a good match. It was more competitive than the 3-0 set score would lead you to believe. Both teams played well, but neither team played so well that they can expect to just skate through the NCAA tournament. Louisville figures to be somewhere around the 6-8 seed line, although if the selection committee really fancies them, they could end up on the 4-line and be the top team in the Nebraska regional. Marquette has a good chance to win an NCAA tournament match, depending of course on who they draw, and might pose some serious troubles for the seeded team they would likely face in round two. I’m excited to see what both teams, but Louisville especially, are able to bring to the NCAA tournament.