Texas ousts UT from volleyball tournament

Published 3:06 pm Friday, December 8, 2023

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The Lady Vols’ historic season came to a heartbreaking finish Thursday night, as Tennessee fell in a heartbreaking five-set battle (25-19, 20-25, 23-25, 26-24, 16-14) to No. 2 seeded Texas in the Sweet Sixteen.

The Big Orange (26-5) enjoyed one of the best campaigns in program history, advancing to the regional semifinals for the first time since 2005, hosting the first and second rounds of the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011 and earning the program’s best-ever national seed at No. 10. The Lady Vols finished second in the SEC, which produced a conference-high eight NCAA Tournament teams this year, with a 15-3 record, and they defeated five ranked opponents throughout the season.

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In her sixth year at the helm, Eve Rackham Watt was named SEC Co-Coach of the Year. Tennessee swept 19 opponents in 31 matches on the year, marking the second-highest for a single season in program history and the most since having 20 in 1983. UT boasted one of the country’s elite offenses, ranking inside the top five nationally and leading the SEC in kills per set (2nd/14.80), assists per set (3rd/13.63) and hitting percentage (5th/.307) entering the weekend.

The offense was fueled by the All-SEC trio of right side Morgahn Fingall, setter Caroline Kerr and outside hitter Jenaisya Moore. The group, along with libero Yelianiz Torres, received AVCA All-Region Team honors this year, while Fingall was recognized as the AVCA Southeast Region Player of the Year and SEC Scholar-Athlete of the Year.

During the contest, Tennessee finished with 68 kills on 65 assists and .235 hitting. The Lady Vols landed five aces and tallied 58 digs and 10 blocks on defense.

Fingall led four UT players with double-digit kills, finishing with 24 on the night to go with six blocks and six digs. Moore recorded 13 kills and 11 digs for the double-double, while Raeven Chase and Erykah Lovett added 12 and 10, respectively.

Kerr posted a career-best 56 assists on the night to guide the offense, marking her fifth time eclipsing 50 assists on the year. She also added 10 digs for the double-double. Freshman Mackenzie Plante stepped in at libero in the third set and tallied a career-best 15 digs.

Tennessee came out firing on offense with 16 kills in the opening frame, but the Longhorn net defense was the difference in the set. Texas held Tennessee to just .189 hitting and had seven blocks. Chase led the way offensively with four kills on 1.000 hitting, while Fingall also chipped in four kills.

The Lady Vols battled in the second set and responded to even the match. The Big Orange outhit the Longhorns .261 to .182. Similar to Tennessee’s opening frame, Texas struggled from the service line, as seven errors ended up being the difference in a set that featured five lead changes and was tied 10 times. After a 7-2 swing by the Longhorns made it 18-16, UT answered with a 9-2 run to close out the set.

The third set was a hard-fought battle between both teams, but it was a pair of aces, four blocks and 12 digs by the Lady Vols that held off Texas and put Tennessee ahead 2-1 in the match. Just like the second period, the frame saw five lead changes and nine ties. The shift in momentum came with UT up 20-19, and after a long rally in which both teams made spectacular plays to keep the ball alive, a Fingall blast bounced off the block and landed out of bounds to give Tennessee a massive 21-19 advantage. She had four kills in the set.

Texas pulled even in the fourth frame thanks to a 6-1 run to end the frame after the Lady Vols held a 23-20 lead. UT hit .256 in the period and had 18 kills, but seven attacking errors compared to Texas’ three made the difference and forced a fifth set. The final frame was a battle from start to finish. The Big Orange clawed back with a resilient effort from a 14-10 deficit to even things up, but a couple of close plays went in the Longhorn’s favor.