Volleyball team wins epic battle

OMAHA, Neb. – Despite dropping a 3-0 match to No. 1 Nebraska in its season opener just one night ago, and enduring a shaky beginning in Saturday's action, Tennessee gutted out a 3-2 victory over No. 21 Utah in the consolation match of the AVCA College Volleyball Showcase, sponsored by the Omaha World-Herald, at Qwest Center.

The Lady Vols came from behind to earn the 10-30, 30-25, 23-30, 30-23, 18-16 triumph.

"That was a really good win for this young group," UT head coach Rob Patrick said. "When I went in the locker room, all I could think of was how proud I was of them. These are the types of games and matches that we lost last year. When we came back in the offseason, all our team wanted was for that not to happen again.

"We played young, and all we are going to do is get more experience. I was really impressed with (Utah's) defense. They dug a lot more balls than I anticipated them doing because they really rely on their block, which is fantastic. For us to outblock was a huge feat. I knew we had to fight hard. I was proud of how (we) responded to getting our teeth knocked in in that first game."

For the second day in a row, the Big Orange set a new single-match attendance mark, as 11,076 fans viewed the contest. In addition to that record, six Lady Vols tied or set personal-bests in a total of 24 categories in the victory, including junior Milan Clarke, sophomores Jena Berg, Chloe Goldman, Leah Hinkey and Farren Powe and freshman Nikki Fowler.

The Lady Vols were paced by Clarke's 16 kills and Fowler added 10 kills, while Hinkey was the defensive star at the net, recording a match and career-high 13 blocks, the fourth-best total in Tennessee history.

Setter Jena Berg ended the evening with personal-bests in assists (38) and digs (18), and libero Chloe Goldman dug-up a match and career-best 23 balls for UT.

In the first game, Utah (0-2) erased any doubts it might have had after its three-game loss to UCLA on Friday night, racing out to a quick 5-0 lead, thanks to a kill by senior AVCA All-American Whitney Webb, three Tennessee errors and a Kathryn Haynie service ace. The Utes continued their early dominance, using a strong blocking effort by Lori Baird and Kate Robison at the net, in combination with some timely hitting to build a 10-2 deficit.

UT earned a sideout thanks to a kill by Clarke, but a Baird kill on the ensuing play returned the serve to the Utes, eventually seeing the Crimson and White own a 15-5 lead at the media timeout.

The Lady Vols (1-1) quickly regained possession on a kill by Powe to the middle of the Utah court, but three more UT miscues and two fierce Haynie serves saw the margin swell to 14 points (20-6) in the Utes' favor. Tennessee stopped the momentum for a moment on a double-block by Mindy Flynn and Powe, but Utah rattled off the next five points, largely due to the play of Webb, who recorded three kills and an assisted block with Baird during the frame.

The Utes finished the game just as hot as they started it, watching Robison pound two kills and Baird and Haynie scorch kills of their own in earning the final five points of the lopsided 30-10 victory.

Behind some scrappy play from the Lady Vols to begin game two, Tennessee took away any momentum Utah had, starting the game the same way the Utes did in the first – with a 5-0 lead - as Clarke and Fowler slammed a kill a piece. Utah regrouped, using four kills by Webb to inch back into the game, shrinking the UT lead to three (7-4) with plenty of action left.

The squads continued to battle, with the Lady Vols still holding on to a three-point (14-11) lead, before Tennessee etched out three consecutive points to push the margin to five, 17-12. After another Lady Vols tally, Utah took over, rallying to tie the game at 18-18, with the action highlighted by consecutive kills by Baird and Haynie.

With the game knotted again at 19-19, Powe and Fowler unleashed back-to-back kills to put UT back on top 21-19, but Utah again responded, earning the next two points to tie the see-saw battle again at 21-21.

The slugfest continued, with deadlocks at 22 and 23, before the Lady Vols rallied for four unanswered points to take a 27-23 lead going into the final stretch, capped by a double-block by Fowler and Leah Hinkey. After a UT missed serve, Powe and Fowler rattled off consecutive slams to bring the game to a 29-25 score, and after a Webb kill for Utah, Fowler ended the match with a kill over the top of the Utes' blockers to earn the 30-25 game two victory.

Utah began the third game by taking a 5-1 lead, thanks to a kill and solo block by Robison, and seemed to regain the fire that it lost in the second, as Webb, Robison and Baird smacked kills to extend the margin to six, 8-2. Following three unanswered UT points, including a service ace by Fowler, Robison stayed hot, smashing her eighth kill of the match, giving the Utes a 9-5 lead.

The teams twice exchanged sideouts before a Webb kill down the left line brought a timeout, with Utah ahead 12-7. Out of the break, Tennessee chipped away at the lead, bringing it down to three, 13-10, but four consecutive points, including a Baird kill and a service ace by Connie Dangerfield gave the Utes their largest lead of the game, 17-10.

With Utah ahead 20-12, the Lady Vols ignited a mini-run, highlighted by a double-block by Hinkey and Clarke and a Clarke kill after a lengthy rally between the two teams, making it a five-point match (20-15), but the Utes had other plans, taking the next five points to extend their lead to ten, 25-15. UT earned eight of the next twelve points, but it was not enough firepower to overcome the deficit, as Utah prevailed by a 30-23 score.

The teams continued the back-and-forth match in the fourth game, as Tennessee took an early 8-4 lead, aided by a Hinkey kill and back-to-back smashes by Powe. The Utes slowly began to whittle away at the lead, as the wall of Karolina Bartkowiak and Webb earned a huge assisted block to keep the rally alive, and Utah eventually pulled ahead 12-11.

UT regrouped and reversed the lead, taking the next four points, capped by a Fowler and Flynn block to own a 15-12 cushion. Consecutive kills by Webb brought the Utes back within one, 15-14, but Tennessee buckled down, igniting a rally highlighted by back-to-back Clarke kills, building the lead to four (18-14).

With the score 20-16 in the Lady Vols' favor, Webb and Robison drilled consecutive kills to inch within two, 20-18, going into the final stretch. The Utes were knocking at the door again, this time pulling within one, 22-21, thanks to a Haynie kill, but two Powe kills and a double-block by Flynn and Fowler helped push the UT lead to five, 26-21. With the score 27-23 in the Lady Vol's favor, Clarke took over, drilling three straight kills to seal the 30-23, bringing the match to a 2-2 stalemate.

Utah opened the fifth and deciding game by scoring five of the first six points, taking a 5-1 lead on consecutive double-blocks by the front-row tandem of Webb and Baird. Tennessee did not die, however, pulling within two, 6-4, until the Utes took the next two points for an 8-5 lead.

With the Crimson and White up 10-6, back-to-back blocks from the Lady Vols made it again a two-point game, but the Utes responded by earning the next two points to increase their lead to four, 12-8. UT regrouped, tacking on three additional points, climbing within one (12-11) when Hinkey and Fowler stuffed a Utah attacker, but Webb dropped the ball over the tops of the Tennessee defenders to earn a sideout, making the score 13-11.

The Lady Vols weren't through fighting, tying the game at 13-13, then going ahead by one 14-13 on a Utes error, but Webb again rose to the occasion drilling a kill on the UT court, knotting the score at 14-14, before a Baird kill gave Utah the lead again 15-14.

The resilient Lady Vols followed suit with a Hinkey kill, following that by a Powe smash to regain the lead, 16-15, but an error on the ensuing play forced a 16-16 deadlock. A Utes attack went long, giving the edge back to UT and another attack error on Utah gave the Lady Vols the deciding point, in the grueling 18-16 match clinching victory.

The key to Tennessee's victory was its defense, as it recorded a total of 37 blocks and 79 digs, while smashing 54 kills for a hitting percentage of .109. Utah's high-charged offense turned in a 69-kill evening, along with 10 service aces, but only managed 19 total blocks during the match.

Tennessee will open the home portion of its slate Friday, Aug. 31, when it hosts Appalachian State at 7 p.m. in the first day of action at the Comcast Lady Vol Classic. Belmont, Indiana and Jacksonville State will also participate in the two-day tournament.

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