COLUMBIA, S.C. - South Carolina volleyball started the 2021 season in style Friday afternoon, upsetting No. 18 Washington State in five sets (20-25, 25-27, 25-13, 25-21, 15-13). The Gamecocks overcame a two-set deficit to the Cougars, igniting the crowd of 1,475 fans with a 15-13 win in the fifth set to open the Carolina Classic tournament.
Mikayla Robinson proved to be dominant in her final home opener, recording a career-high 16 kills with a .500 hitting percentage to go with eight total blocks. Kyla Manning (18 kills) and Riley Whitesides (13) were vital to the team's comeback late, combining for 23 kills over the final three sets.
Two individual milestones were also celebrated in the win; Robinson moved past Darian Dozier for the program's career blocks record in the rally-scoring era (now with 430), and head coach Tom Mendoza notched his 100th win as a head coach - 53 coming at South Carolina.
SET ONE: Washington State pulled away late for the win to open the match, 25-20, expanding on a 14-13 lead late. Three different Gamecocks recorded multiple kills, but Washington State's defense limited Carolina to only 11 kills and a .156 hitting percentage.
SET TWO: The Cougars appeared to be following a similar script in set two, holding South Carolina at an arm's length for most of the game with a modest lead but denying any major runs early. Down 23-20, though, the Gamecocks used a Robinson kill and a pair of Cougar attack errors to tie the set up at 23. Washington State got a big block out of a timeout to earn its first set point, but were denied by a kill from Ellie Ruprich.
The Gamecocks were able to get even at 25, but Washington State put together kills on back-to-back possessions to get the 27-25 win and a 2-0 lead in the match. Overall, there were 16 ties and three lead changes in the set.
SET THREE: Facing a must-win scenario for the rest of the afternoon, South Carolina took advantage of an error-prone Cougar offense to get on the board with a 25-13 win, leading wire-to-wire. Washington State had more errors (8) than kills (6) in the set, while the Gamecocks hit .520 with 15 kills on offense. Five different hitters had a kill for Carolina with Manning leading the way with five.
SET FOUR: Despite the emphatic win in set three, South Carolina still had miles to go to erase Washington State's lead in the match. The Cougars appeared to be on the brink of ending the match in the fourth, but the Gamecock blockers swatted back the visitor's hopes of victory in a 25-21 decision that tied the match.
Washington State built a lead early and held it, pushing it late in the game at 21-18. Out of a South Carolina timeout, though, the Gamecocks ran off the next seven points unanswered to shock the Cougars. Sparking that 7-0 run were a pair of kills from Manning, a tandem block from Manning and Robinson, and a big solo block from Robinson.
Freshman Lauren McCutcheon spearheaded the run behind the service line, adding her first career ace along the way to victory.
SET FIVE: For as good as Manning was to help Carolina make it to a fifth set, she elevated once more in the finale. She would account for six kills in the team's first nine points of the set to 15, helping the Gamecocks run out to a big lead, 10-5.
Washington State would mount one last comeback attempt, but kills from Manning and Robinson gave the Gamecocks a 15-13 final score to clinch the comeback.
- Dating back to last year, South Carolina has three wins in its last four matches against nationally ranked opponents.
- Freshman Morgan Carter earned the start at libero and was a standout defender in her college debut. She finished with a game-high 17 digs and was perfect on 19 serve receptions, including setting up the game-winning point in the fifth set.
- Along with her career blocks record, Robinson's 16 kills put her a 999 for her career. With one more kill over the final two games this weekend, she would become just the fourth Gamecock in program history with 1,000 kills and 400 blocks in a career. The last to do it was Heather Larkin (1994-97).
- Riley Whitesides added a career-high two service aces to go with her 13 kills and eight digs for the afternoon.
- The third freshman to see major playing time Friday was Claire Wilson. The first-year setter had 28 assists, a pair of kills and a block in her college debut. She and fellow setter Mallory Dixon led an offense that finished with a .322 hitting percentage.
- As a program, Friday's win was the 850th in South Carolina's 49-season history.
Head Coach Tom Mendoza on the win
"We knew with such good opponents this week, no matter the result, the fans were going to get their money's worth and I think regardless of what that final score in the fifth set was, I think that was the case. We played really good volleyball and for long stretches Washington State was playing really good volleyball and that's what we want to see, that's what we want to test ourselves against.
"I'm glad we got the reward of finishing the match, but I think it's just such a valuable learning experience especially starting three freshmen in the lineup. I thought they played very composed but just this experience is so valuable for a team that still is still gelling early in the season. Hopefully this pays off with more than just one great win but obviously we're excited to get that, too."
The weekend gets no easier for South Carolina, as the home tournament goes on with two matches on the schedule for Saturday. First is a morning meeting with No. 23 Rice (0-1), first serve at 10 a.m., then the weekend wraps up with a showdown with No. 9 Pittsburgh (1-0) at 7 p.m. Both matches will air on the SEC Network+.