COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Texas A&M middle blocker Kaitlyn Blake had a team-high 13 kills while hitting a career-high .632 as the Aggies pulled away for their season-high sixth consecutive victory with a 27-25, 29-27, 25-20 victory over Mississippi State this evening at Reed Arena.
A&M improved to 17-7 overall and 11-2 in Southeastern Conference matches and remained undefeated against the Bulldogs in seven all-time meetings. MSU falls to 12-16, 4-10 SEC.
MSU, which has never won a set against the Aggies, pushed Texas A&M to the brink in the first two sets and was serving for a combined four set points before the Aggies kicked in gear and came back to the win the match.
In the opening set, the Bulldogs got an early lead on the Aggies by continuously keeping the ball alive on their side of the court while building their largest lead at 21-13. Senior middle blocker Jazzmin Babers then got a kill to mark the start of an 8-1 run that put the Aggies within 22-21. Hollann Hans, the reigning SEC Freshman of the Week, also helped kick start the Aggies, posting three kills during the rally.
The teams began to trade points with a kill by Bali Leffall-Young putting the Bulldogs at set point, 24-22. MSU was whistled for a ball handling error on the ensuing play, and Babers and junior outside hitter Kiara McGee followed with a block to tie the score, 24-24. Evie Grace Singleton put down her fifth kill of the stanza to put the Bulldogs at set point for the third time, 25-24, but junior opposite hitter Ashlie Reasor put down an errant MSU overpass for a kill to tie the score. Babers followed with a strategically placed tip kill to the sideline to even the score, 26-26, and then she teamed with junior setter Stephanie Aiple to block Singleton to close out the set.
There were 17 ties and eight lead changes in the closely contested second set before A&M pulled out the 29-27 win. MSU held the largest lead of either team at 7-3 before Babers caromed a kill off the Bulldog block to start a 5-0 run that gave the Aggies their first lead since 1-0. The teams continued to battle back and forth before Blake had two of her six kills in the set during a 3-0 run that gave the Aggies their largest lead, 21-18. MSU fought back to tie the score at 23-all, but Reasor broke the tie and put A&M at set point with a well-timed off-speed shot that fell in for a kill. An A&M ball-handling error knotted the score at 24-24, and Singleton followed with a kill to give the Bulldogs a 25-24 lead. Aiple quickly set up Babers for back-to-back kills to return the lead to A&M. The teams exchanged kills and the score was tied at 27-27 before Aiple dumped the ball in for a kill, and Reasor followed with another off-speed shot to close out the set.
A&M spotted MSU a 12-9 lead in the third set before beginning another comeback. The Aggies, who outhit MSU .385 to .207 in the frame, went on an 11-2 run, including seven unanswered points that put A&M up, 20-14. The Bulldogs cut into the lead, getting within 22-19 before Blake got a kill and teamed with McGee for a block to put the Aggies at match point. Singleton staved off one match point with her match-leading 16th kill, but McGee countered with a kill down the block to end the set and complete the sweep.
Aiple dished out 42 assists and guided the Aggies to a .283 to .208 lead in hitting percentage for the match. She also added five blocks, one shy of her career high. Babers finished with a match-high 15 points, posting 12 kills and a match-high six blocks. McGee and Hans pitched in nine kills apiece, while libero Amy Nettles and defensive specialist Victoria Arenas led A&M with nine digs each.
Texas A&M wraps up its four-match homestand Sunday as the Aggies play host to the Georgia Bulldogs. First serve is Sunday at 1 p.m. at Reed Arena. A&M narrowly defeated Georgia, 3-2, when the teams met Oct. 21 in Athens.
The Student-Athlete Advisory Committee will be hosting its annual Aggies CAN food drive on Sunday. Anyone donating four canned food items will be admitted free to the match. It also is Take a Kid to the Match, with up to four kids admitted free with the purchase of one regular-priced adult ticket. In addition, it will be Bingo Sunday. Fans are encouraged to pick up a bingo card at the 12th Man kiosk at the main entrance and play along for chances to win Aggie gear.
Texas A&M postmatch quotes:
TEXAS A&M HEAD COACH LAURIE CORBELLI
On today's slow start...
"We've definitely had some frustrating slow starts. We can't do that and finish the way we want to finish anymore, we can't do it anymore. We just challenged them to make a switch. We were hesitant on the court, there was not as good of communication as there usually is. I realize that is going to happen sometimes, but my job is to let that not happen. If it happens, you have to call them out on it, so that's what we did. I think we kind of woke up some players that kind of didn't realize they needed to be woken up. Overall a 3-0 win in the SEC near the end of the season, I'm really happy about the victory. [Mississippi State] just doesn't quit swinging at blocks. I almost wanted to at some point stop blocking because we seem to dig them better just a straight, clear shot coming at you then they score at the block. They came at us on their right side, and that's not an easy spot to defend from when they just relentlessly swing away. I thought they had a great game plan, and I thought they really handled, for having two freshman on the floor, outside hitter and setter, they had great composure and very well coached."
On strategy against Mississippi State...
"[Kaitlyn] Blake was really hot, so whenever we can get our middles going, both in front and behind our setter, it's something we definitely want to stick with. Blake hasn't had a night like tonight in a long time. She's been a little bit hot and cold lately, and this night she was obviously really hot with 13 kills, one error. It's really difficult to stop us when we are running both of those two in front of the setter and the blockers are having to figure out when to jump, who to jump with, who to stop. I thought [Stephanie Aiple] made some really great decisions, especially when we were running our combinations. A lot of the time setters want to set someone in that combination and she is setting someone outside of the combination. That's usually a one-on-one situation as well. I was really impressed with her selections."
On Mississippi State's Outside Hitter Evie Grace Singleton...
"What a player. I love it when the players can come in defying the odds. Not the size, not the jump, not the accolades that so many SEC players come in here with. Just a kid that is just talented and goes for it. In fact, I compared her to my players. I said, 'if every one of you played like that, just with that kind of joy, passion and intensity, boy what a fun team it would be to coach every night.' They don't like it when I do that, when I compare them to other players because they take it personally. I tell them it's not personal, it's just the truth. I thought she was really fun to watch and she does have a great swing. She has had a great career there, she has taken that program. She has been the hitter on that team for four years."
On Mississippi State's fast pace sets...
"They do run such a fast set to the pins, to the antennas. It's faster than anyone we'll see. I don't know if a team can really play any faster than that, is probably how I should say it. It is really challenging; we've worked on it all week in practice. You know, our practice squad side is setting the ball super-fast. Our hitters aren't used to hitting it that fast so we try to emulate it, but it was really hard to do. That ball just comes through the seams and off your hands and comes on quick. All the things that take you a little bit out of your typical rhythm of blocking. Blocking is all about timing, rhythm and position. They just ripped that part up on everybody, that's how they score most of the time."
TEXAS A&M SOPHOMORE MIDDLE BLOCKER KAITLYN BLAKE
On starting stronger...
"We're a fast, strong team. It's just a matter of if we are ready to come play or not. I think that's what gets in our way. We're so ready that we're kind of tight and not wanting to make mistakes, and that's when we make the most mistakes. I think all around tonight we did fairly well. Of course, everybody struggles at times, but we always pull it out in the end. But we do need to start playing well earlier. I think we played well toward the end."
On maintaining focus...
"I think our problem is we get comfortable and think we have it in the bag. We should never have that mindset, because everyone is good in the SEC. Whether you're at the top or the bottom, you never know what's going to happen and you have to stay on your game."
On tonight's win...
"I felt like Stephanie [Aiple] and I had a really good connection tonight. Just being up and early normally seems to work for me, and when I feel like I get on a run, it just keeps happening. It's nice to know that I'm able to work with my setter, and to perform tonight was what our team needed. I think all the other hitters did that as well, and it was really good for us."
TEXAS A&M JUNIOR OUTSIDE HITTER KIARA MCGEE
On moving forward as a team...
"When it comes time for the tournament and we're still playing like this, we're going to lose, no doubt. That's what we're trying to work on, our mental game, right now, on coming out and starting faster, because we have all the athleticism, height and strength in the world on our team. Right now it's just our mental games getting us down right now, and our starts."