UT volleyball headed to regionals

Published 9:57 am Tuesday, December 5, 2023

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For the first time in 18 years, the Tennessee Lady Vols are heading to the Sweet Sixteen after sweeping No. 6 seed Western Kentucky (25-20, 25-16, 26-24) Saturday night at Food City Center.

The No. 3 seed Lady Vols (26-4) earned their third Sweet Sixteen appearance since the expansion to 64 tournament teams in 1998, joining the 2004 and 2005 squads. UT snapped an impressive 25-match win streak for the Hilltoppers, who finished their season 30-5.

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In the regional semifinal round, Tennessee will battle the other UT, taking on the reigning NCAA champs and No. 2 seed Texas on Thursday. The Longhorns are the Big 12 champions and boast a 24-4 record. They enter the matchup following wins against Texas A&M and SMU in the first and second rounds, respectively.

For the 19th time this season, the Big Orange swept its opponent, marking the second-most sweeps in a single season in program history and the most since having 20 in 1983, when they played 41 matches. The match didn’t come easy, though, as Western Kentucky battled in a contest that featured 11 lead changes and 26 ties.

The Lady Vols held the advantage in each statistical category, as the offense finished with 41 kills on .302 hitting, 40 assists and seven aces—the second-most in an NCAA Tournament match during the 25-point rally scoring era. Defensively, UT held the Hilltoppers to .221 hitting thanks to nine blocks and 37 digs.

Graduate student outside hitter Jenaisya Moore led the charge behind a match-best 19 kills on .419 hitting, six digs and a block. Her outstanding performance was highlighted by 10 kills in the final frame to lift the Lady Vols to the sweep. Graduate student right side Morgahn Fingall enjoyed an all-around effort, notching 11 kills, six digs and six blocks on the night.

Redshirt freshman setter Caroline Kerr guided the Big Orange offense with 37 assists. Helping out both offensively and defensively, sophomore middle blocker Keondreya Granberry tallied six kills and six blocks. Graduate student middle blocker Raeven Chase added three kills and three blocks of her own.

On the back row, junior outside hitter Erykah Lovett had a team-high eight digs to go along with two aces and two blocks. Graduate student libero Yelianiz Torres had seven digs and an ace on the night, while sophomore defensive specialist Abby Ekeler had a season-best six digs and an ace. Rounding things out for UT, junior defensive specialist Ashllyn King recorded a pair of aces, including the match winner in the third set.

Tennessee took the early advantage in the contest, jumping out to a 15-9 lead in the opening frame. The Hilltoppers answered with an 8-3 run to pull within one point at 18-17. However, the Big Orange responded by winning seven of the final 10 points in the set. Fingall led the way with five kills, while Moore added four of her own to pace the offense.

The Big Orange kept it rolling in the second stanza, finishing on a 13-5 run to take the 2-0 lead in the match thanks to an 87 sideout percentage. The defense was the difference in the frame, as the Lady Vols had six blocks and held Western Kentucky to -.034 hitting. Granberry had four blocks and three kills in the set.

Western Kentucky wouldn’t go away without a fight, rallying from a 14-9 deficit in the third set to pull ahead 22-19. However, the Lady Vols would not be denied, as Moore had five straight kills to give UT a 25-24 advantage and setting up a King ace to secure the victory. Moore finished with 10 kills in the frame to spearhead the offense.