Volleyball team sweeps tourney

The No. 19-ranked Tennessee women's volleyball team completed its perfect run through the 2010 Comcast Lady Vol Classic by capturing the tournament title with a 25-18, 25-17, 25-21 victory over Virginia Tech (2-1) on Saturday evening at Thompson-Boling Arena.

Playing in front of the fifth-largest crowd in school history with 1,307 orange-and-white-clad faithful on hand, the Lady Vols jumped on the Hokies early and never looked back en route to their third straight win to kick off the 2010 campaign.

"This was a big match tonight," UT Head Coach Rob Patrick said. "First of all, it was for a championship. We've been talking about playing for championships since the beginning of the year and this was an important step for our team to take. Also, it's great to play well at home.

"We have the best fans in the world and they filled up the arena. We appreciate that type of support and our players play up to that when the lights go on.

"I was really proud of our team. Each one of them played every point hard. They didn't take any points off. If we do that and everyone takes care of their individual responsibilities, we can play at a very high level for long periods of time."

Senior Nikki Fowler and junior Kayla Jeter tied for the team lead with 10 kills each. Though her streak of matches with a double-double ended at 18, Fowler hit .429 for the contest with just one error on 21 swings.

Fowler, who took home tournament MVP honors, led the team in both kills and digs for the weekend with three-match totals of 35 and 30, respectively. The Dallas, Texas, native averaged a tournament-best 3.89 kills per set in addition to hitting at a stellar .310 clip, tallying a squad-high five service aces and collecting four blocks.

"I can't say enough about what Nikki Fowler does for us," Patrick said. "She touches the ball more than anyone else on our team and takes care of those touches every single time. We know exactly what we are going to get from her each match. She is the focus of every other team's defense and still puts up great numbers and handles the load we put on her."

As it did all weekend, Tennessee utilized a balanced offensive attack to defeat the Hokies on Saturday night, getting five kills or more from five different players. After Fowler and Jeter, sophomore DeeDee Harrison had eight, senior Leah Hinkey smashed out seven and freshman Kelsey Robinson posted five. Hinkey and Harrison and Fowler were all named to the All-Tournament team alongside Fowler.

"Throughout this tournament, I thought it was neat to see how much DeeDee Harrison has grown as a player," Patrick said. "She has been working really hard in our program for two years now and the only thing she needs is experience on the court. She got a little bit better in each match that she played in this tournament. I think she felt more comfortable."

The Lady Vols put their physical abilities on display defensively as well, registering 14 blocks against Virginia Tech, led by five from Hinkey. Sophomore Leslie Cikra was right on her heels though, sending back four Hokie swings. Fowler was the team leader in digs, meanwhile, scooping up nine attacks.

"I really liked how all of our newcomers played, especially Amanda Friday who stepped in at our libero position," Patrick said. "She did a tremendous job passing and controlling the ball. I was really proud of her because the other teams were crushing their serves and she took a lot of those by herself."

For the weekend, Tennessee hit .314 as a team, while holding its opponents to a miniscule .105 attack average. It also averaged 15.00 kills, 16.11 digs and a staggering 3.00 blocks per set while claiming the tournament title with a trio of three-set victories.

In the first set on Saturday night, the Lady Vols held Virginia Tech to a .188 hitting percentage, while hitting at a blistering .419 pace themselves. Fowler and Harrison each recorded five kills as UT never trailed in its 25-18 opening-frame triumph.

With a two-point lead at 9-7, Tennessee took advantage of a Felicia Willoughby service error to start out on a 5-1 run that effectively put the frame out of reach. Fowler followed the miscue with a blast down the center of the court to make it 11-7.

After a VT kill, Hinkey sandwiched a pair of putaways around an attack error by Morgan O'Neill to put her squad up by six at 14-8.

The rest of the set would be a back-and-forth affair between the two teams with UT only able to add one more point to its lead before Fowler closed things out with a beautiful jump-serve that fell cleanly for an ace.

The second frame saw the Hokies take a 13-11 lead, it's only advantage of the match, before junior libero Amanda Friday served the Orange and White to an 8-0 run, during which Virginia Tech used both of its timeouts. A service error by Justine Record put the ball back in UT's hands and Friday took full advantage.

The 5-7 junior kept the Hokies off-balance with her floating jump-serve. Fowler scored UT's second point of the run before Hinkey took an over pass and slammed it home, prompting VT lead man Chris Riley to burn his first timeout. His second would be used just three plays later after a pair of attack errors and a kill by freshman Kelsey Robinson.

The short break in play did little to halt the Lady Vols' momentum as Hinkey came right out of it with another putaway before joining up with Cikra to send back a Jennifer Wiker attack to put the Lady Vols up 19-13. Once again it was Fowler that did the honors at the end of the frame, crushing a thunderous kill to give Tennessee a 25-17 set victory.

The third and final set was never in doubt as the Big Orange led from start-to-finish en route to picking up a match-clinching 25-21 win. UT exploded out of the gate, taking an 8-1 lead behind the strength of Jeter who had four kills in the first nine points of the frame.

Neither team would be able to string together more than three consecutive scores the rest of the way as Tennessee held on for the victory.

The Big Orange is back in action on Friday afternoon when it takes on Oklahoma in the University of Houston Tournament, held in Houston, Texas. First serve is set for 4:30 p.m. ET. UT will also square off with No. 15 Florida State and host Houston the following day.

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