KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Four Texas A&M players recorded double-digit kills as the Aggies extended their season-high win streak to six with a 25-14, 25-23, 25-18 victory against Tennessee this afternoon at Thompson-Boling Arena.
The win sets up a crucial Wednesday evening showdown at Reed Arena between A&M (15-6, 8-2 SEC) and Missouri, who are both tied for second place in the Southeastern Conference standings, only a half-game behind league-leader Kentucky. The match, which will be televised by ESPNU.
A&M's Jazzmin Babers had a team-high 11 kills against the Volunteers to tie for match-high honors. Kiara McGee pitched in 10 kills, as did Shelby Sullivan and Emily Hardesty, who were both errorless in a combined 51 swings. Two-time reigning SEC Setter of the Week Stephanie Aiple orchestrated the balanced attack with 38 assists, and A&M outhit the Volunteers .296 to .147.
Defensively, A&M's Victoria Arenas had a season-high 13 digs to tie libero teammate Amy Nettles for match-high honors. Gabby Litwin added eight digs, and Sullivan completed her stellar all-around game with a match-high five blocks.
Tennessee (20-7, 6-6 SEC) held a narrow 9-8 lead in the opening set before Babers connected on a kill down the line to begin a 4-0 surge for the Maroon and White. The Aggies, who outhit the Volunteers .417 to .103 in the frame, continued to pull away and held a 19-14 advantage before using a six-point run to close out the frame. McGee propelled the Aggies to the win, posting three kills during the final scoring outburst, including the set-clinching kill which gave her seven kills in the set.
Tennessee, aiming to snap a four-match losing streak against the Aggies and take a 7-6 lead in the all-time series, jumped out to a 6-2 lead to begin the second set before Sullivan led an 8-point charge, posting three kills and teaming with Hardesty for four blocks during the run that put A&M ahead, 10-6. It would be the Aggies' largest lead of the frame as the Vols would mount a comeback.
A&M held a 15-12 cushion when the teams began to exchange point for point. Trailing 19-16, the Volunteers rallied for four consecutive points to regain the lead, 20-19. Babers evened the score with a kill, but the Aggies committed a service error on the next play to put the Vols back in the lead, 21-20. A&M quickly regained the lead, getting back-to-back kills by McGee and Ashlie Reasor to go up, 22-21. Reasor and Babers then teamed for a block, and Reasor followed with a well-placed roll shot that fell in for a kill, putting A&M at set point. Tennessee, which was outhit, .225 to .167, fought off two set points as Bri Holmes put down an A&M overpass for a kill and then powered a kill down the Aggie block to put the Vols within 24-23. Hardesty, however, thwarted Tennessee's comeback, connecting on a kill set up by Babers to close out the 25-23 win, giving the Aggies a 2-0 lead in the match.
A&M never trailed in the final set, outhitting the Vols, .256 to .156 to complete the sweep. The Aggies utilized Sullivan and Hardesty's play at the net during a 5-0 run that gave A&M its largest lead at 15-7. Tennessee could get no closer than five points for the remainder of the match and trailed 21-16 before Sullivan tooled the block for a kill and then combined with Aiple for a block to end a long back-and-forth play, which included a save by Hardesty who hustled to the out-of-bounds area on Tennessee's side of the court to pass the ball back to A&M's side to extend the play.
Tennessee got a kill to get within 23-17 but committed a service error to put the Aggies at match point. Kendra Turner staved off one match point with her team-leading 11th kill before Sullivan capped the victory with a kill on the slide attack.
Texas A&M post-match quotes:
Texas A&M Head Coach Laurie Corbelli
On her thoughts about the match...
"I think this may have been one of the most fun matches I've ever coached, mostly because the team was at such a high and so receptive to everything we were sharing with them about what we needed to change. Their attitudes and their love of volleyball were really evident today, and that makes me really happy. I don't know how to describe it; the team is just really coming together and is in a really good place as a group, so that was really fun."
On winning the long rallies and having such a balanced attack...
"They played really great defense on the Tennessee side and kept giving us balls back, and so we got opportunities to get a lot of attacks. I think we rely heavily on our balance. I think [Stephanie] Aiple does a super job of distributing the ball to keep everyone on their toes; to keep our opponents wondering who's going to get the ball. I'd say our defense is probably the most improved aspect of our game. We have been digging more, so that means we are going to get more attacks off to our opponents. It's helping us a lot, and it's making a big difference."
On facing Missouri in a crucial match-up on Wednesday...
"For years and years it's been a great rivalry with Missouri. They are an extremely well-coached, well-trained team that can be very dangerous. We go five sets with them way too often. I don't doubt that it will be any different. Their offense is fast. They play great defense. They block lights out. It will be a huge challenge for us."
On the chance to move into a tie for first place with a win against Missouri...
"We are still at the point where we know we have eight matches left to position ourselves. We are taking it one at a time and respecting our opponents and making sure we are prepared."