KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - The 14th-seeded Tennessee Lady Vol volleyball team opened the NCAA Tournament with a strong all-around effort, downing Duke in four sets, 25-15, 23-25, 25-19, 25-16, on Thursday night at Thompson-Boling Arena.
With 1,552 orange-clad faithful cheering them on, the Lady Vols were able to advance to the second round of the NCAA Tournament for the third consecutive year and ninth time in school history. UT will take on Ohio State, which defeated MTSU earlier in the day, at 7 p.m. on Friday.
Thursday's crowd marked the seventh-highest home attendance in program history and was the largest crowd for an NCAA match ever in Knoxville. Tennessee is now 9-2 in NCAA Tournament matches held at Rocky Top.
“I’m really proud of the team,” Lady Vol head volleyball coach Rob Patrick said. “When half of your team that is out there has never been in an NCAA Tournament, finishing up their first season and being able to come out and play a very steady first match in an NCAA Tournament was very good. They’ve been doing what they’ve been doing all year long, (which) is playing beyond their years.”
Sophomore Kelsey Robinson paced the Orange and White effort with her team-leading 22nd double-double of the season, posting a match-high 19 kills to go along with 11 digs, a pair of blocks and an ace. Freshman Tiffany Baker and Leslie Cikra also reached double-digits with kill totals of 13 and 12, respectively.
“I thought we were very patient in our offense, both when we were receiving and serving in transition because Duke played just a fantastic defensive game,” Patrick said. “It could’ve gotten hairy out there if we would have gotten a little short-sighted and a little antsy to try and get a kill earlier in the rally, and we didn’t do that.”
Defensively, sophomore Ellen Mullins topped the Big Orange with 18 scoops, followed closely by a career-high 14 digs from freshman Nikki Brice. At the net, junior DeeDee Harrison tallied a match-high seven blocks, in addition to recording seven kills.
Freshman setter Mary Pollmiller guided to the UT offense to a hitting percentage of .257, bettering Duke by over .100 points (.257-.151), as she dished out 47 of UT’s 52 assists, while adding four kills of her own.
To begin the match, Duke scored five of the first seven points to take the early advantage. That would be the last time the Big Orange would trail in the set, as UT rattled off runs of 5-0 and 6-0 to take a commanding 13-6 lead.
In the first rally, Baker blasted a pair of kills, freshman Shealyn Kolosky added one of her own, Brice added an ace from the service line and the Blue Devils had an attack error. Up 7-6, Kolosky, Robinson and Baker each recorded kills, Pollmiller and Kolosky combined for a block and Baker recorded her first ace of the season, giving the Lady Vols a seven point lead, 13-6.
Duke scored four of the ensuing five to cut its deficit to four, 14-10, but could get no closer. A kill from Harrison and an ace from Mullins pushed UT’s lead to six, 18-12, and a 4-0 run gave UT’s its largest lead at 23-14. The Lady Vols closed out the set by scoring six of the final seven points, as a Duke miscue and a solo block from Harrison gave the Orange and White set number one, 25-15.
The Lady Vols carried their momentum over from the first set early into the second frame, grabbing a quick 4-2 lead. Duke would rally back however, notching the next three point to take a 5-4 advantage. The set would be tied at points five through seven before a Kolosky kill and a Blue Devil attack error gave UT a two-point lead, 9-7.
Trailing 11-8, Duke ripped off seven straight to regain the lead at 15-11. An attack that sailed long ended the run, but the Blue Devils would score the next three to extend their lead to six, 18-12.
A Tennessee timeout was exactly what the Lady Vols needed, as the team responded in a big way, scoring seven of the next eight points to knot the match at 19 all. During that span, Cikra had three kills, Baker, Harrison and Robinson each tallied one and the Blue Devils sent an attack long.
Duke would score the next two, but the Big Orange would eventually even the set at 22 after back-to-back kills from Robinson. It was not enough though as the Blue Devils scored three of the final four tallies in the set to even the match up at 1-1, winning 25-23.
Following the break, Duke took the first point of set three, but kills from Harrison and Baker and a Blue Devil miscue ensued, giving UT a 3-1 advantage. That’s when Duke made its surge, tallying the next six points to grab a four-point lead at 7-3.
The Lady Vols had a run of their own however, as three blasts from Cikra, three Duke errors and an ace from Mullins allowed UT to reclaim the lead at 10-7. The Orange and White would never trail again in the set, as they lead by as many as five after a Robinson blast made the score 17-12.
The Blue Devils had one last run in them, rallying to score three in a row to make the score 17-15. The squads would trade the ensuing four points prior to Pollmiller and Robinson notching a kill each and a Duke attack error to extend the Lady Vol lead to 22-17.
Scoring six of the final eight points of the third game, back-to-back kills from Harrison and Robinson gave Tennessee the set, 25-19. In the frame, the Lady Vols hit .344, which was the best hitting percentage for either team in any set.
The fourth and what proved to be the final set saw UT jump out early and sustain its lead. Down by one, 4-3, the Lady Vols scored eight of the next nine to notch a strong 11-5 lead. In a 5-0 run ignited by a Cikra kill, Kolosky combined for a kill with Baker and another with Cikra, along with an attack error wide from Duke.
Still holding a three-point lead, 11-8, the Lady Vols pushed their advantage to 10, 18-8, after three slams from Robinson, three miscues on the part of Duke and a service ace from Jasmine Brown. Duke got to within seven on five occasions, but no closer.
Holding a 22-16 lead, UT ended the match in style with a Baker kill, a block from Kolosky and Cikra and a shot off the arm of Cikra that ended the set, 25-16, and the match. The Big Orange defense was stout in the final frame, limiting the Blue Devil offense to hitting to a mere .022.
A trip to the NCAA Regionals over Dec. 9-10 will be on the line Friday, as the Lady Vols take on Ohio State in their final home match of the season.