LEXINGTON, Ky. — The University of Tennessee volleyball team (22-9, 15-5 Southeastern Conference) closed out the 2008 regular season in style, knocking off No. 17 Kentucky (26-5, 17-3 SEC) in a five-set thriller, 21-25, 26-24, 22-25, 25-21, 16-14, in front of 3,021 fans, including a boisterous Lady Vol contingent, on Friday night at Memorial Coliseum in Lexington, Ky. The win marked UT’s first over a ranked team since it took out then-No. 18 LSU on Oct. 12 last season in Knoxville.
“That was the most fun that I have had coaching a volleyball match in a really long time,” UT Head Coach Rob Patrick said. “I’ve never had a team have to give so much for so long as this team has this season. Six weeks ago, we were 10-8 and 4-4 in conference. Since then, every player on our team has made a commitment to do what was necessary to get us to this point. To go 12-1 to end the season, especially playing in as tough of a conference as the SEC, is very special. I can’t say enough about the heart and focus of this team.
“We took Kentucky’s best shot tonight and stood up to the challenge,” Patrick said. “They had us on our heels in every set, and we were able to play the big points well enough to put ourselves in position to win. We played fearlessly in games four and five when we had the most pressure on us. That is the mark of a very mature team. Give credit to Kentucky, they played an outstanding match and will have a lot of success in the NCAA Tournament.
“I especially want to acknowledge the huge contingent of Orange and White in the crowd tonight,” Patrick said. “They really helped to cheer us on to victory and played a huge role in our success tonight.”
Sophomore Nikki Fowler led all players with a season-high 24 kills in the win. The Dallas native also recorded seven digs, three blocks and a pair of assists.
“Nikki Fowler played like an All-American tonight,” Patrick said. “Everyone in the gym knew that we were going to set her, and she was still able to produce kills for us. She also provided a steadying force both passing and at the net.”
Also reaching double-digits in kills were seniors Mindy Flynn and Milan Clarke and junior Farren Powe with 16, 14 and 10, respectively. Junior Kylie Marshall, meanwhile, just missed out on her second double-double in as many matches with eight putaways and 18 digs. Freshman Alyssa Hilby topped the team with five blocks, while Flynn recorded four, and Marshall and Powe both had three.
“We were able to rely on Mindy, Milan, Farren and Kylie at different times throughout the match,” Patrick said. “They each stepped up when we needed them and played at a very high level.”
Freshman Kelsey Mahoney and junior Michaela Hanakova paced the Lady Vol attack from the setter position, combining for a team season-high 73 assists. A Fort Worth, Texas, native, Mahoney set a career high with 36 helpers in the contest, while Hanakova tallied 28 of her own to go along with eight digs.
Leading UT in the digs category was junior libero Chloe Goldman. The Monterey, Calif., native bounced back from her second-lowest dig output of the season to pace the Lady Vols with 22 scoops. She was also perfect in the passing game, handling all 35 serves that went her way.
“Chloe was the lynchpin of our back-row play,” Patrick said. “She did a tremendous job of passing consistently throughout the entire match and came up with a number of great digs against Kentucky’s terrific hitters. Her serving also kept Kentucky off-balance offensively.”
After the two squads split the first four sets, Tennessee was able to outlast a hard-charging Kentucky squad to claim the match with a 16-14 victory. Fowler saved her best for last, pounding out a frame-high four kills, while hitting .333 with just one error in nine swings. Flynn and Clarke were close on her heels, however, recording kill totals of three and two.
Following a fourth-set triumph, the Big Orange was able to carry over its momentum into the early portions of the final game, taking a quick 7-2 advantage. With the score tied at 2-2, Flynn took over. Following a Kentucky error, the Louisville, Ky., native blasted out a kill from the right side. Fowler then smashed one down off the Wildcat block before Flynn continued her tear with hammers on consecutive plays.
Although a setting error put an end to the run, Fowler got the Vols going again, sending a laser down the line, to make it 8-3 UT as the two squads switched benches. The Orange and White continued to extend its lead, going up six seconds later as Nzenwa was called for a net violation on a Powe kill.
In a microcosm of the entire match, Kentucky refused to give up, cutting its deficit to two with an 8-3 run. Now leading 13-11, Tennessee gave itself three chances at match point after Clarke smashed out her 13th kill of the contest. Yet again, the Wildcats proved their resiliency, clawing out the next three scores to tie the set back up at 14-all. Clarke’s final kill of the evening dashed their hopes, however, and Hilby soured UK’s Senior Night with a putaway that gave the victory to the Lady Vols.
Kentucky struck the first blow of the match, claiming a hard-fought 25-21 victory in the opening frame. Fowler paced the Tennessee attack, pounding out four kills, while Clarke had three and Flynn and Powe each had two. Goldman and Hilby, meanwhile, tallied set-highs of six digs and two blocks, respectively, for the Lady Vols.
Although the Wildcats opened the scoring with a pair of points, the Big Orange answered immediately with kills from Hilby, Flynn and Fowler on consecutive plays. The score remained tied until another three-point UT run, featuring a putaway by Powe and a pair of Kentucky errors, gave the Orange and White a 7-4 advantage. Following two UK kills, the Lady Vols continued to extend their lead, scoring on a back-row smash by Fowler, a sharp block by Hilby and Marshall and a setting error by UK setter Sarah Rumely, to go ahead by four at 10-6.
The Wildcats came roaring back with a trio of points of their own, however, to move within one at 10-9. The Big Orange was not going to give up that easily though, using an attack error by Lauren Rapp to spark another run to go up 13-9 as Clarke followed with a tip to the middle of the court before a solo block by Hilby.
Unfortunately for fans of the Orange and White, that lead would be short-lived as Kentucky tied it up at 13-all with a four-score spree. A tip by Fowler got one of the points back for UT, but UK took a 16-14 advantage behind the strength of a pair of Sarah Mendoza kills and a Rumely service ace. The see-saw battle continued with Tennessee regaining control of the scoreboard at 17-16 as Fowler smashed a kill home just before unforced errors by both Pavan and Rumely.
It was then Kentucky’s turn to grab the momentum, going on an 8-3 spree to take a commanding 24-20 advantage. Although Clarke was able to record a kill to keep her team alive, it was too little, too late, as UK’s Queen Nzenwa sent an attack crashing to the court for the final point of the set.
For most of the second frame, it looked as if Kentucky would be going into the intermission with a two-set advantage. The Lady Vols missed that memo, however, using a pair of runs late in the game and fighting off two set points to pick up a 26-24 decision. Flynn took over offensively, hitting .417 with a team-high seven kills and just two errors in 12 swings. Fowler and Clarke each tallied five kills as well, with Fowler hitting at a .500 clip with just a single error in eight attacks. As a team, UT hit .300, while holding the Wildcats to a .129 attack average.
It was all Kentucky early on, as it utilized a five-point run and a pair of three-score sprees to take a seemingly insurmountable lead at 20-14. The Big Orange was not going to go away that easily though, and a Clarke kill through the UK block proved to be all it needed to get things going its way.
With freshman Kayla Jeter keeping the Wildcats off balance with her tough serving, Tennessee proceeded to rattle off the next five scores to deadlock the frame at 20-20. Following Clarke’s putaway, UT scored on back-to-back attack errors by Mendoza and Pavan before Fowler landed an attack just inside the back line to prompt a timeout by UK Head Coach Craig Skinner. The short break did little to halt the Orange and White’s momentum with Mendoza opening play back up with another error before Hilby and Clarke joined forces to send back her attack attempt on the next play.
After a service error ended the run, UK gathered itself and took four of the following six points to go up 24-22 and earn two chances at winning the set. Once again, Tennessee had other ideas as the first attempt was thwarted by a Fowler putaway and a lift by Rumely negated the second. With the scoreboard now tied up at 24-all, back-to-back kills by Marshall and Flynn gave the Lady Vols the victory.
Kentucky answered the Tennessee threat in the third set, bouncing back with a 25-22 victory. Fowler continued to pace the UT offense, recording five kills, while Marshall and Flynn had four and three, respectively. Goldman was spectacular in the frame as well, scooping up seven Wildcat attacks.
UK struck the initial blow of the frame, taking a five-point lead at 13-8 after a three-point rally that featured two kills and a block by Nzenwa. The Big Orange formulated an immediate response, going on a four-score spree, bookended by Fowler kills, to move within one at 12-13. After two Wildcat points, the two squads then traded scores on the next 11 plays to give Kentucky a 20-18 advantage on the scoreboard.
At that point, Mendoza notched a putaway which was followed by a UT attack error. Although Tennessee was able to tally three more points, Kentucky was able to match them with three of their own to close out the 25-22 triumph.
Determined to give it their best effort, the Lady Vols blasted out 20 kills in the fourth frame to propel themselves to a 25-21 victory and send the match to a fifth and deciding set. Fowler and Powe led the attack with six kills each, with Powe doing so on just six swings for a perfect attack average. Marshall put forth a stellar defensive effort with seven digs to go along with three putaways.
Despite the final outcome, Kentucky was on a roll early on, racing out to a 6-1 advantage. A timeout by Patrick served to halt the momentum and allowed his squad to slowly crawl its way back into the set. The Orange and White was able to do just that, eventually cutting its deficit to just two at 12-14. At that point, the Lady Vols found their groove, scoring on five consecutive plays. Powe opened the spree with a kill off an over pass and Marshall followed with a smash off the UK block.
A tough serve by Hanakova then forced a Wildcat error and forced Skinner to burn his first timeout. It did little to stop UT, however, with Powe recording a massive kill right out of the break before teaming up with Marshall to stuff a Mendoza attack. Although a kill by Lauren Rapp ended the spree, Powe tallied yet another kill to give Tennessee an 18-16 advantage.
Kentucky then rattled off consecutive scores to make tie it up, but the Big Orange was undeterred, answering with four of its own. Clarke started the streak with an absolute blast between two back-row defenders and Fowler followed with a smash down the line. The duo then repeated the feat with back-to-back kills to move the score to 22-18 in UT’s favor. After Nzenwa dropped a kill over the UT block, a Fowler kill and a block by Flynn and Hilby put Tennessee at set point. Although the Lady Vols committed back-to-back unforced errors, Fowler was able to put an end to the set with a blast from the outside that set up the team’s fifth-frame heroics.