COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- The No. 15 Texas A&M Aggies stranded the Texas A&M-Corpus Christi Islanders in three sets in NCAA Championship first round action Friday night at Reed Arena. The Maroon and White posted a 25-16, 27-25, 25-15 victory to advance to Saturday's second round match, where they face the No. 7 Hawai'i Rainbow Wahine in a 6:30 p.m. match at Reed Arena.
With the win, Texas A&M stretched its win streak to 15 matches, the lengthiest stretch since 1982 when the Aggies reeled off 20 consecutive victories.
The Aggies owned distinct advantages in hitting percentage (.325-.150) and blocks (8-0) for the match. Ashlie Reasor highlighted the Aggie arsenal with 13 kills, a .414 hitting percentage and four blocks. Kiara McGee added 11 kills while hitting .350. Stephanie Aiple distributed 40 assists while registering six kills, a .625 hitting percentage and eight digs. Other key contributors included Shelby Sullivan (six kills, three digs, five blocks), Emily Hardesty (seven kills, .316 hitting percentage, nine digs, two blocks). Gabby Litwin had a career-high 18 digs, and Amy Nettles and Victoria Arenas also logged double-digits in the digs column with 17 and 11, respectively.
The Islanders charged out to a 3-1 lead in the first set, but the Aggies knotted the score at 3-3 and eventually took their first lead at 7-6 when Hardesty put down the first of her four kills in the set. A&M-Corpus Christi tied the set at 9-9, but the Aggies went on a 6-1 run to take a 15-10 lead, culminating with kills by Jazzmin Babers and McGee. The Islanders would draw no closer than four points the remainder of the set, 16-12. Texas A&M went on an 8-2 run, capped off by a kill by senior co-captain Angela Lowak, who returned to the court for the first time since suffering a dislocated knee cap at Florida State on Sept. 18, putting the Aggies at set point, 24-15. The Islanders put down a kill before Kristyn Nicholson served long to give the Maroon and White the final point of the frame.
The Aggies dominated the Islanders at the net in the first set, with a 4-0 lead in blocks, and Texas A&M owned a .342-.082 edge in attack percentage.
A&M-Corpus Christi was the quickest out of the gates again in the second set, staking claim to a 7-2 lead. The Maroon and White trimmed the margin to two points at 7-5, on an Islanders' attack error, and 11-9, on a kill by McGee, but found themselves trailing by five points, again, at 14-9 on back-to-back service aces by A&M-Corpus Christi's Ivy Baresh. Texas A&M used a series of four kills, one each by Aiple, McGee, Hardesty and Reasor, to spearhead a 7-1 run, giving the Aggies their first lead of the set at 16-15. The set see-sawed down the stretch with eight ties before Texas A&M was able to claim a second-set win.
The Islanders were unable to mount a two-point lead down the stretch, while the Aggies were able to take leads of 22-20 and the final of 27-25. Reasor, who keyed the win with seven kills and a .583 attack percentage in the stanza, fought off a pair of Islanders' set points with kills at 24-23 and 25-24. Another Reasor kill gave Texas A&M a 26-25 lead, and Nettles clinched the set with a service ace.
The Aggies did not yield a lead to the Islanders in the third set. Coming out of the break, the teams played on an even keel with the score knotted at 1-1, 2-2 and 3-3. The Aggies used a kill by Babers, a block assist by Sullivan and Reasor and a kill by Reasor to stake claim to a 6-3 lead. With a 10-8 edge, the Maroon and White used three kills by Reasor and two kills by Sullivan to go on a 7-2 surge and put the match out of reach at 17-10. An attack error by the Islanders' Kirstee McGarva signaled the end of the match with Texas A&M's 25-15 win in the third set.Texas A&M was able to coast past the Islanders in the third set behind a three-pronged attack by Aiple, Reasor and Sullivan. Aiple was 3-for-3 on kills and added two service aces to go with her 15 assists in the set. Reasor logged five kills and hit .500 in the set. Sullivan tallied four kills and hit .400.
The Islanders, who were making their first-ever NCAA Championship appearance and entered the contest riding a 21-match win streak, end their season 24-6.
The Aggies improved to 16-2 in first-round matches under Laurie Corbelli and the Maroon and White are now 18-4 all-time in NCAA Championship first round action.
Texas A&M continued its dominance in NCAA Championship home matches, bumping its mark to 16-1, including 2-1 at Reed Arena.
The Aggies improved to 3-0 all-time against A&M-Corpus Christi, notching their second 3-0 victory in the series.
The Rainbow Wahine (27-1) advanced to the second round after holding off a feisty TCU team, 17-25, 25-23, 24-26, 25-21, 15-13
Texas A&M Head Coach Laurie Corbelli
"It's a relief to have that one completed. I thought we started off really relaxed and focused and strong. We had a bit of a letdown, but Corpus had some things to do with that. (We) were able to regroup in the timeout and really come out strong again for set three. It was really exciting for us to get to have our senior co-captain, Angela Lowak get on the floor for the first time since September (18th). That meant a lot to all of us, and to her as well so that was really fun."
On rebounding in the second set...
"I think Steph (Aiple) found her hot hitter, and we were able to get some really good digs. I mean, to have 70 digs in three sets was pretty crazy. Knowing that the defense was going to keep giving her balls, she got her feet there, got in position to get the ball to (Ashlie) Reasor behind her and Reasor took care of it. I think they just had a good connection and they both fought to make that work."
On facing Hawai'i...
"I think it's going to be a great battle. The teams are similar in a lot of ways. It's hard because the styles are a little bit different and so I think we'll have to make really sure that we're getting our serve-receive patterns down and getting our timing and rhythm. But I think it's going to be a great match, I'm really looking forward to it."
On Angela Lowak's appearance...
"It's been a long haul for her. I can't speak for them, but when I heard the screaming and the crowd too just be so happy to see her on the court again. They've watched her for three and a little (years), and I was determined to get her out there tonight. I think the team just appreciates her and the leadership and all that she's given when she can't be on the floor. She's been an awesome off-court leader and has really left a great mark here at Texas A&M volleyball. So to honor her, doing that was special for me to get to do that for her. The team I think was pretty darn excited. I was afraid she was going to break down in tears because of the crowd reaction. In the third set, when I put her on again, I thought 'Oh, dear. She is going to start crying' because this is the end for her. She hasn't gotten to really engage herself in what she's been training so hard to do. She does say that she knows there's a reason it happened. She's not sure what the reason is but she has become a totally different person because of it. We're supporting and proud of her. She won't miss a beat in her life as she goes out after graduation."
On Texas A&M Corpus Christi's underdog mentality...
"Absolutely, I said that from the beginning, too. They're just going to serve bullets at us and to spots they think can score and they sure did, that first set especially. Even in set two, we've been really changing and working new looks on our serve-receive and I think we let it get us when it normally wouldn't, in terms of an ace here or there. I told the team it's my fault. We installed something, and it's not something I think they're comfortable with so we took it out. It's not anything really major, but it's just enough to kind of make them second-guess a little bit. They cleaned it up, but they were serving very, very well at us. I thought they would do more attacking by their setter. She has so many attempts on the year. I think the team was ready for it, we worked against it a lot in practice. I don't know that their passing allowed her to do a whole lot that they've typically done."
On defensive personnel's performance...
"They did. (Katelyn) Labhart didn't get a lot of opportunity, but they (Gabby Litwin and Victoria Arenas) just really compete so well and practice every day. Arenas' specialty is her speed and her defense and we really want to maximize that over there in the right back. Eleven digs on the night and maybe one of her highest dig totals, and then Litwin with 18. They just did a great job of being still and pursuing the ball after they see it. A lot of diggers go where they think it's going to go, and they guess wrong. They've really been working on reaction and making sure they see where it's heading first."
Sophomore Setter Stephanie Aiple
On challenges with the middle...
"Me and the middles weren't clicking very good the first couple of sets, but our outsides did a phenomenal job with that. As soon as we hit intermission, we figured it out. We got our rhythm back and they came out and dominated in that third set. Ashlie (Reasor) took over and did what she needed to do in order to get the win, in that second set especially. There's just that one thing that was missing. I don't think it was anything they were doing wrong or anything I was doing wrong. It wasn't there tonight a little bit, but we figured it out. I bet you it won't happen tomorrow."
On taking chances herself...
"A lot of times when teams are looking at us, they'll send their middle one way or the other with whoever hitter is hot in the moment. That opens the whole net up for me. So my passers did a very good job tonight of giving the ball up to me high enough and close enough to the net where I didn't have to force it, but it was definitely an option for me."
Sophomore opposite hitter Ashlie Reasor
On her converting critical points...
"I treat every point like it's just the next ball. I'm not really stressing out too much like it's match point or set point but just take every ball like it's a normal ball, like we're practicing in the gym. It's nice. It's cool to get the win like we did. I'm not really stressing out like it's match point or set point. It's just another ball."