FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. - No. 19 Texas A&M will take a 14-match win streak into the NCAA Championship tournament after capping its most successful conference season in school history with a 25-27, 25-16, 25-23, 25-23 victory over Arkansas today at Barnhill Arena.
The Aggies (23-6), who clinched their first-ever conference championship on Wednesday with a 3-2 victory at Missouri and secured an automatic berth in the postseason tournament, finish SEC play 16-2 (.889), marking the highest conference winning percentage in program history.
A&M avenged its only home loss of the season, a 3-1 setback to the the Razorbacks in the Aggies' SEC season opener on Sept. 27. Sophomore outside hitter Kiara McGee led A&M with 15 kills, and junior outside hitter Emily Hardesty and redshirt junior middle blocker Jazzmin Babers also posted double-digit kills with 13 and 10, respectively, as sophomore setter Stephanie Aiple dished out 47 assists. Babers took match-high honors in blocks with nine, and sophomores Amy Nettles and Gabby Litwin led in digs with 14 and 10, respectively.
A&M spotted Arkansas a 4-0 lead to start the match and trailed the opening set, 21-17, before the Aggies recorded four kills and a block during a 5-0 run that gave A&M its first lead, 22-21. Pilar Victoria ended the run and tied the score at 22-22 with a kill, but McGee countered with a kill to put A&M up 23-22. Babers put the Aggies at set point, connecting on Aiple's one-handed set for a kill, but Victoria kept the Razorbacks alive, tooling the A&M block for her sixth kill. A&M then hit into the net on the ensuing play, knotting the score at 24-24.
Following an A&M timeout, McGee delivered a kill on an assist from Babers, putting A&M at set point for the third time. Arkansas, however, got back-to-back kills form Chanell Clark-Bibbs and Barbara Dapic, putting the Razorbacks serving for the set, 26-25. A&M hit out of bounds on its next attack attempt, giving the Razorbacks the win.
It would mark the sixth time in seven all-time meetings between the two programs that the team that won the first set ends up losing the match.
Babers had four kills during an 8-1 run that put the Aggies ahead, 10-4, in the second set. A&M would continue to distance itself, later going on a 6-1 burst that was spearhead by McGee's four kills as well as strong serving by senior middle blocker Shelby Sullivan. A&M, which outhit Arkansas, .410 to .205 in the frame, built its largest lead at 24-13 following Nettles' desperation dig that fell on Arkansas' side, resulting in a kill to put the Aggies at set point. Arkansas extended the set with a kill, and A&M followed with back-to-back errors before Hardesty clinched the win with a kill.
A&M once against spotted the Razorbacks a 4-0 lead to begin the third set but used an 8-1 surge to take the lead, 10-7. Arkansas, which was held to a -.024 hitting efficiency in the stanza, would later regain the lead, 16-15, following a 4-0 run. Sophomore opposite hitter Ashlie Reasor teamed with Babers for a block to tie the score, and Babers followed with a solo block to return the lead to the Aggies, 17-16. Arkansas' Chanell Clark-Bibbs tied the score for the final time with a kill, but Reasor propelled the Aggies to a 20-17 lead with a block and back-to-back kills.
Arkansas fought back to within a point at 20-19 and again at 22-21 before the teams began to sideout for the remainder of the set. A&M was up, 23-22, and got a lucky break when Arkansas was whistled for being in the net while attacking an A&M overpass, putting the Aggies at set point. McGee hit long on the next play, but then teamed with Babers for a set-ending block.
There were 12 ties in the fourth set, the last coming at 18-18 before McGee gave the Aggies the lead for good after putting down an Arkansas overpass for a kill. A&M went on to build its largest lead at 24-21 as Sullivan had two of her five kills in the frame on back-to-back plays. Arkansas fought off two match points with a kill and a block before Hardesty closed the match with a kill.
A&M outhit Arkansas, .291 to .185 for the match and led in kills, 65-54. A&M also led in assists (61-52), digs (59-55) and blocks (13-11).
Victoria, the league leader in kills and points per set, led all players with 19 kills and 15 digs. Arkansas, which was outhit, .291 to .185, ends the season 17-13, including 7-11 in SEC play.
The 64-team NCAA Championship bracket will be announced Sunday at 8 p.m. on ESPNU. Texas A&M earned an automatic berth in the postseason tournament by winning the SEC championship and will be making its fifth consecutive and 23rd overall appearance in the NCAA postseason tournament.
Sixteen teams will host first and second rounds Dec. 3-4 or 4-5. A&M is one of 26 teams that has the potential to host the first two rounds according to the American Volleyball Coaches Association's host watch list that was announced earlier this week.