"This match was a microcosm of our season," Patrick said. "We were not able to really run our offense, which, once again, did not allow us to get the number of kills we need to have in order to be successful against top teams. This will be one of the main items that we address this off-season."
In her final match in the Orange and White, senior Yuliya Stoyanova saved her best performance of the season for last, smashing out 20 kills on 33 swings with just two errors for a team-high .545 hitting percentage. The Sofia, Bulgaria, native also added three assists, six digs and a squad-best five blocks in the contest.
"Yuliya did a great job of carrying us offensively tonight," Patrick said. "The most impressive part was that most of her kills came when she had two blockers on her because of our inconsistent passing. She is going to leave a big hole for us to fill next year and we are going to need some of our younger players to step up to fill those shoes."
Fresh off being named Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Year, Nikki Fowler showed Lady Vol fans, once again, why she deserved that title. In addition to 16 putaways, the 6'2 right-side hitter also had 11 assists, seven digs and a block.
Sophomore libero Chloe Goldman also stood out statistically for UT, collecting a match-high 21 digs to mark the 26th time in 29 matches this season that she led the team in that category. Goldman concludes the year with single-season school records in both total digs and digs per game, with marks of 628 and 5.56, respectively. Those records shatter the previous standards of 506 and 4.69, set by former Lady Vol Amy Morris in 2005.
Whether it was the after-effects of a week-long break between matches or Thanksgiving Day turkey, the Lady Vols were slow to start in the first game, which Notre Dame took by the score of 30-21. Although the Fighting Irish opened the match with three consecutive scores, Tennessee was able to keep them within sight, fighting back to within two at 7-9. At that point, however, Notre Dame proceeded to post runs of three and six points, separated by only a pair of scores by the Big Orange, to take a commanding 18-9 advantage.
The Lady Vols refused to give up, though, getting a trio of scores, including a Notre Dame service error, a block by Stoyanova and sophomore Leah Hinkey and a kill by junior Milan Clarke. Their momentum was halted, however, when they were called for being out of rotation and a point was awarded to the Irish. Shortly thereafter, with the score at 25-20 in favor of the Fighting Irish, a four-point spree sealed the fate of the Big Orange, putting them down match point at 29-20. A block by Hinkey and Clarke simply postponed the inevitable before a kill by Adrianna Stasiuk put an end to the initial game.
The second game followed the same script as the first, with the Fighting Irish jumping ahead early and never looking back, en route to a 30-20 victory and two-set advantage. The Notre Dame offense was at full force, hitting at an impressive .459 clip with 20 kills and just three errors in 37 attempts. Although Tennessee notched a respectable .310 average (12-3-29), it was not enough to match up with the powerful Irish attack.
This time, Notre Dame took the first four points of the frame before UT finally got on the board. Three plays later, a block by Fowler and Hinkey and a Notre Dame attack error reduced the Lady Vol margin to two, but the Irish answered with a streak of five consecutive points to go ahead 11-4 and dash any hopes of an Orange and White comeback. The Big Orange would not get closer than five points for the remainder of the game before a blast by Justine Stremick put her squad up by a pair of sets as the two squads headed to their respective locker rooms.
The Lady Vols looked reenergized after the intermission and led from start-to-finish in the third game, eventually taking the frame, 30-23. The UT offense was on display in game three, out-hitting the Irish, 317 to .140, with Fowler and Stoyanova leading the way with eight and seven kills, respectively.
It was Tennessee's turn to take the early lead, going up 5-2 after three straight scores, sparked by a sharp kill by Fowler. Notre Dame was able to come back, however, knotting the score at 6-6 on an unforced error by UT. The Lady Vols would not relinquish their lead though, and regained a four-score advantage with a three-point run that featured two hard kills by Stoyanova.
The Orange and White would remain in control from that point on, earning a pair of four-point streaks and a three-score spree. Fowler's seventh kill of the frame gave her team a 29-19 lead, but Notre Dame still had some fight left in it. After scoring on four consecutive plays, the Irish had cut the lead to 29-23, but a timeout by Patrick effectively stopped their momentum and Fowler ended the set with her 14th putaway of the day.
Building on its late display of consistency in the third game, Notre Dame found its stride again in game four, cruising to an easy 30-19 triumph and winning the match, three sets to one. The Irish strung together four streaks of three or more points in the frame, including a six-score run and a pair of four-point sprees. The Lady Vols, meanwhile, did not do much to help themselves, committing 11 unforced errors in the game.
"Despite our inconsistent play this year, the team is very excited about getting back in the off-season, getting stronger and addressing some of the things we need to do in order to be more consistent," Patrick said. "Personally, I'm excited because we return nearly our entire team. Most importantly though, we will have a lot of match experience under our belt, which is one of the major items we were lacking coming into this season."