Unbeaten U of L volleyball survives first-set scare against Ball State, moves to Sweet 16

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Louisville was a point away from a big problem. Twice.

Unbeaten, top-seeded and heretofore dominant, U of L’s volleyball team would twice survive set point in the opening set Saturday night before restoring order in the NCAA Tournament.

“We were talking, ‘If we beat No. 1, we can retire,’” Ball State’s Cathryn Starck said.

No such luck. Louisville advanced to next week’s Sweet 16 with a 29-27, 25-11, 25-19 victory – its 22nd sweep in 30 matches – but for a few anxious moments the possibility of a stunning upset loomed at L&N Arena.

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Ball State had fought off four set points itself before putting U of L on the ropes with leads of 26-25 and 27-26. Winning the first set of a best-of-five match sets a tone and creates tension that is only amplified in the single-elimination NCAA Tournament. U of L has dropped the first set only four times in its 30 matches.

But after U of L’s Aiko Jones tied the score at 26-26 with one of her 10 kills and a Ball State service error tied it again at 27-27, the Cardinals took their reprieve and ran with it.

The moral of our story is you can’t afford to let the No. 1 team in the nation off the hook.

“There is the reality of being so close to having that first set win and it not falling your way,” Ball State coach Kelli Miller Phillips said. “Volleyball is a huge game of momentum. And there (was) a momentum switch and part of it was Louisville came back set two and played much cleaner. They had a lot of hitting errors set one and they really upped their game.”

The home team committed 12 attacking errors in the first set – typically hitting balls too hard and too long – but would make only four such errors thereafter. Mixing high-velocity hits with some soft touches deftly done, they eventually returned to their season-long standard and advanced to a Thursday Sweet 16 match at Freedom Hall against 21st-ranked Florida.

Story continues after gallery.

“I think that first set we were kind of feeling them out,” Jones said. “We just knew we had to stay calm, let the crowd get rowdy and play Louisville volleyball. After we figured that out in the first set, the next sets came easier for us.’’

Senior Anna Stevenson, who had only 17 service aces all season entering the match, would make three during a single service run in the third set and barely stifled her laughter at her streak of success. She attributed U of L’s first-set struggles to players being too “amped” and excited about the last match of the season on their home court.

“It’s hard not to get carried away,” she said.

The last unbeaten team in Division I, Louisville has lost only 11 of its 101 sets this season and has managed to play through some sloppy stretches without costly consequences. But as the Cardinals go deeper in the tournament, their margin for error contracts. Like U of L, Florida has won all six of its sets in the tournament and will be playing in the regional semifinal for the 28th time.

“They're really physical,” U of L coach Dani Busboom Kelly said of the Gators. “They are used to winning and they didn't have their best year from a regular season standpoint, but they really beat their first two opponents in the tournament pretty good, and I think that's just a product of that program.”

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This will be Louisville’s third straight trip to the Sweet 16, and certainly its most promising. Ball State’s Phillips said U of L looked the part of a top-ranked team.

“They're so balanced,” she said. “The thing that's harder to see on film sometimes is their service pressure. I think we're good serving team. We faced a lot of good serving teams and they had not only pace on the ball but could hit sidelines, could serve drop balls and that caused us a lot of problems. Of course, they’re big and physical at the net.”

Lesson: You get a chance to go up on U of L, you had better grab it.

Tim Sullivan: 502-582-4650, tsullivan@courier-journal.com; Twitter: @TimSullivan714

This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Louisville volleyball tops BSU, advances to NCAA Tournament Sweet 16

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