All winning streaks must come to an end, a fact all too familiar to the Lady Vols volleyball team.
Attempting to extend their five game winning streak and avenge a loss to SEC rival Kentucky (14-8, 8-4 SEC) from a month ago, Tennessee instead lost 3-2 after five sets Friday night at Thompson-Boling Arena. After coming back from six points down in the first set to close it out for a 25-21 win and taking Kentucky to the wire in the second for a 29-27 win, the Lady Vols were overwhelmed as the Wildcats took the next three sets and the match.
"Our passing broke down, and we just didn't do what we needed to do with the ball," said Tennessee head coach Rob Patrick. "Give Kentucky credit, they were really playing great defense; they were digging a lot of balls, making us play every point. We just weren't able to sustain playing well enough for a long enough period of time."
Despite the strong performances from sophomore Tiffany Baker and juniors Kelsey Robinson and Ellen Mullins, the Lady Vols fell short in the later sets of the match. Baker and Robinson recorded 18 and 17 kills respectively, with Robinson also recording 11 digs. Mullins followed up her second consecutive SEC Defensive Player of the Week honors with 29 digs.
"I feel like after game two, we wanted to keep our energy high, but we wanted to stay focused so we wanted to calm down, but it was too calm," said Baker, "Seeing how we played in the first two sets, I feel like we haven't played like that in a long time, just seeing that and what we're capable of is a positive aspect."
Due to a tremendous defensive effort from Kentucky senior Stephanie Klefot while senior Ashley Frazier added another four kills in the set, Kentucky rallied early and shut down the Tennessee defense, winning the third set 25-14. The teams fought back and forth in the fourth set before Kentucky finally finished the game strong, winning the fifth and final set 15-5.
"I was really happy with how we competed, I was really happy with how we played, I was really happy with the choices we were making on the court," said Patrick. "We needed to keep our high level of play, we need to sustain it better."
However, the Volunteers were able to rebound Sunday afternoon as they took down Alabama (14-11, 3-10) in three straight sets (25-18, 25-16, 25-19).
The Lady Vols improved their record to 15-6 and 8-4 in SEC play with this win after a quick turnaround from the heartbreaking loss to Kentucky. Robinson again paced Tennessee as she recorded the final kill of the match to go along with her 13 kills and 12 digs while only being responsible for one error in the match.
"I think after a loss like that against Kentucky, there's only two ways to really go, you can either shut down or you can keep moving," said Robinson. "I'm real proud of our team for responding well, we kind of just said, 'you know it was a tough loss and let's put it behind us and let's move forward.'"
Tennessee controlled the entire match with only two lead changes throughout the contest while the final result was never in question. The win came from a balanced attack from several Lady Vols. Outside of Robinson, senior DeeDee Harrison contributed nine kills with Baker also coming up big with eight kills of her own.
"Games that you lose you always try to find a way to come back, and we just used this game to work on all the things we did wrong against Kentucky," said Harrison. "This is definitely a good confidence boost for us as a team."
The match moves Mullins closer to the 1,000 dig mark for her career, with only 15 more to go after recording 29 digs Friday and 13 more on Sunday while she followed up on her second consecutive SEC Defensive Player of the Week honors.
"I thought the players did a fantastic job of really staying on the game plan, they played very efficiently, very low error," said Patrick. "I was very proud of them for taking what Alabama would give us and not try and get greedy on some things."
For Alabama, sophomore outside hitter Pricillas Duke-Ezeji led the team with 15 kills. Junior Cristina Arenas added 11 digs for the match in just a set and a half before the match took a tragic turn for the Crimson Tide and Arenas in the second set as she and Duke-Ezeji collided. Arenas walked off the court under her own power and would not return; she was later seen on the sideline on crutches after coming back from the locker room.
The Lady Vols will see their next action as they travel to take on Mississippi State in Starkville at 7 p.m. CT, on November 2 in what will be their first of four straight road games.