FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – Texas A&M dropped the first set in a crucial showdown at Arkansas, but the Aggies came back to win the match, 21-25, 25-15, 25-16, 23-25, 15-3, tonight at Barnhill Arena and take a two-game lead atop the Southeastern Conference Western Division.
It was the fifth consecutive win for the Aggies, who improve to 15-2 overall and 7-1 in the SEC. Arkansas, which was looking to tie A&M for the division lead, falls to 14-5 overall and 5-3 in league play.
After the first four sets were back and forth and never totally decided until the final point, the Aggies scored the first five points and were in total command in the fifth set. A&M, which outhit the Razorbacks, .417 to -.263 in the frame and .245 to .087 for the match, later went on an 8-0 run as Arkansas couldn’t find the court and A&M couldn’t miss. Back-to-back kills by Lindsey Miller put the Aggies at set point, 14-2. Arkansas staved off one match point with a kill but then hit long for the final point as A&M clinch the victory in the first-ever meeting between the two programs.
“This is just a tough weekend overall, so to win the first one on the road and to play really well most of the time was really huge for us,” A&M coach Laurie Corbelli said. “We are trying to keep our momentum going. We want to continue to build on the things we’ve been doing, and I thought we did that performance-wise tonight, so I was pleased with that.”
A&M found itself in a hole early in the opening set as Arkansas pulled away from a 5-5 tie, scoring runs of point to build a 19-11 lead. The Aggies would make a late run behind the blocking of Stephanie Minnerly, who had three stuffs during a 6-1 rally that put A&M within 22-20. Despite nine kills in the set by Alisia Kastmo, the Aggies could get no closer and trailed 23-21 when Arkansas got a kill high off the block and A&M followed with an attack that went into the net. It marked only the second time this season A&M dropped the opening set. The only other time, the Aggies fell to Kentucky in five sets.
“We struggled with our passing early, and I get that,” Corbelli said. “We are on the road; we are in a new facility. They were serving bullets at us, but we kept at it and kept fighting really hard with our passing. We were really, really working hard to improve every single pass, and once we did that, we stayed with them. We were able to successfully pass to the target, which got us into rhythm and resulted in the win.”
A&M scored the first seven points of the second set and built its biggest lead at 15-5 when Arkansas mounted a comeback. The Razorbacks scored six unanswered points to get within 15-11, but that would be as close as they would get. Leading 19-14, Aggie freshman Shelbi Vaughan had two kills during a 5-0 rally that put the Aggies at set point. Arkansas had a kill before Miller put down a kill on the slide attack to even the match at a set apiece.
A&M scored three straight points early in the third set to go up 5-3 and build a lead it would not lose. The Aggies continued to widen the gap and were leading 22-15 when Tori Mellinger had a kill and setter Allie Sawatzky followed with an ace to put A&M up, 24-15. Arkansas posted a kill, but on the ensuing play was whistled for a blocking error on a Minnerly attack that had sailed long.
Arkansas used a 6-0 run to build a 15-8 lead in the fourth set. The Razorbacks would go on to build their largest lead at 21-13 before A&M mounted a comeback. Trailing 23-16, A&M reeled off six unanswered points to get within a point. Arkansas ended the run with a kill, but Kastmo answered with a straight-down kill out of the middle. Jasmine Norton then put down her seventh kill of the set to clinch the winning point for the Razorbacks and force the fifth set.
Kastmo tied her career high with 21 kills while hitting .341, and Minnerly had a career-high eight blocks as A&M had a season-high 15 for the match, while Arkansas had only six. Mellinger had 11 kills and 11 digs for her sixth double-double of the season, and Sawatzky had 48 assists and 10 digs for her sixth double-double. Megan Pendergast led all players with 19 digs, and Kelsey Kinley pitched in 12 digs.
“There were a lot of people who did some great things,” Corbelli said. “Stephanie Minnerly carried through her responsibilities so beautifully and I couldn’t be more proud of her. She’s just a joy to have on the court, and I always trust that she is going to do her best to get the specifics of her job done.
“Allie Sawatzky did a beautiful job distributing the ball, and Kastmo, no one could stop her. She had some pretty incredible runs there other than a little bit of a lull in set four, but she turned it around and came back and got hot again and was unstoppable.”
Vaughan, who came off the bench in four sets, sparked the Aggies with career highs of eight kills and three blocks. Corbelli also got key off-the-bench contributions from freshmen Shelby Sullivan and Angela Lowak.
“It was really fun to have Sullivan, Lowak and Vaughan go in,” Corbelli said. “They are very confident. They are phenomenal players, and it is so nice to be able to have that depth that is young and spirited and really doesn’t know any better. They just go out and play hard, and they are so good at what they do. They are kind of my secret weapons in a way. I know what they have to offer, but I don’t use them unless I feel like it is a good time to put them out there, and I can always count on them and it is wonderful.”
A&M now faces a rematch against Kentucky on Sunday in Lexington. The Wildcats have won the last two meetings against the Aggies, a 3-0 victory in the second round of the 2011 NCAA Championship, and a 3-2 win at A&M earlier this season, marking A&M’s only SEC loss this season.
“Kentucky is so strong and for them to be at home, wow, it is just going to be an awesome match,” Corbelli said. “We’ve played them twice. They beat us twice. Eventually it is going to go our way, and I just trust that my team is going to work its hardest to get it done. It certainly won’t be easy, but if we can get that one, it will be an absolutely a huge win for us.”
First serve is at 12:30 p.m. (CT) and live audio of the match will be available free at 12thMan.TV.