COLLEGE STATION, Texas – A back-and-forth match finally fell Kentucky's way on Sunday as the Wildcats upended Texas A&M, 25-23, 24-26, 25-18, 20-25, 15-12, in front of 1,492 at Reed Arena.
A&M (10-2, 2-1 SEC), which gave up a season-high nine aces in the match, suffered its first Southeastern Conference loss and had its nine-match winning streak snapped as the Aggies were unable to avenge a 3-0 loss to the Wildcats in last year’s NCAA second round match.
Kentucky, which has been ranked as high as No. 10 in the coaches Top 25 poll this season but dropped out this week, ends its four-match losing skid and picks up its first SEC win of the year to improve to 7-6, 1-2.
“The bottom line today was that our confidence in our serve receive was shaky,” A&M coach Laurie Corbelli said. “It’s typically one of our best skills, and we weren’t able to get our setter at the net and get her doing the things she typically does very well. Today we just didn’t recover as often as we usually do. Things were a little out of sorts, and yet we were still fighting.”
The Aggies used a 6-1 run to build a 15-10 in the opening set, but Kentucky, behind strong serving by Whitney Billings, raced back to get within 15-14. The Wildcats tied the score three times before a Kentucky service error and a kill by A&M senior middle blocker Lindsey Miller gave the Aggies a two-point cushion at 21-19. The teams traded points and A&M held a 22-20 advantage before Kentucky reeled off four unanswered points -- three the result of A&M attack errors -- to take a 24-22 lead. A&M, which was outhit, .086 to .000, in the frame, staved off one set point before Alexandra Morgan put down a kill for Kentucky, giving A&M its first first-set loss of the season.
The second set was another back-and-forth affair with 15 ties and 10 lead changes. The Aggies used a 5-0 run to build their biggest lead at 18-14, but Kentucky chipped away at its deficit. The Aggies maintained the lead at 23-21 when Kentucky got back-to-back kills and another ace by Billings to go up 24-23. Senior opposite Alisia Kastmo kept the Aggies alive with a kill, and Kentucky hit long on the ensuing play to put A&M back in the lead, 25-24, and serving for the set. A&M senior outside hitter Tori Mellinger and Miller then clinched the win by blocking Morgan’s attack on the next play.
Things quickly got out of hand for A&M early in the third set as Kentucky used a 10-0 run to break away from a 5-5 tie. A kill by Mellinger ended the run, and the Aggies eventually got within 17-12 before Kentucky, which had five aces in the set, scored six unanswered points to build its biggest lead at 23-12. A&M mounted a comeback and fought off four set points before a kill by Billings closed out the 25-18 win for the Wildcats.
A&M got back on track in the fourth set and outhit the Wildcats .514 to .424 in the stanza to even the match at two sets apiece. The Aggies used a 5-0 run to break away from a 6-6 tie and kept the lead for the reminder of the set as Mellinger led the charge with eight kills and zero errors in 10 attempts. A&M also got key contributions from a pair of freshmen as Angela Lowak and Shelby Sullivan each posted a pair of kills in the set.
“I was really proud of our plays by some of the freshmen who went in and did a great job,” Corbelli said. “Shelby Sullivan, Angela Lowak and Sierra Patrick all got to get on the floor and really see what it’s like out there at game time, and they did great jobs. Using our depth at really tough times isn’t something I do a lot, but it’s absolutely necessary.”
Lowak began the fifth set with a kill, and the Aggies went on to build a 4-1 advantage. The lead was short-lived, however, as Kentucky scored four unanswered points to take its first lead at 5-4. Consecutive kills by Kastmo returned the lead to A&M, 6-5, but the Wildcats countered with back-to-back kills to regain the lead. A&M managed to tie the score five times, the last coming at 12-12 before Kentucky closed out the match with three consecutive kills.
“Our fans got to see some great American college volleyball today, and I’m really proud of that,” Corbelli said. “I thought Mellinger just played her tail off and Kastmo did the best she’s done. (Allie) Sawatzky, given the passes she got, really kept her composure and did a beautiful job.”
Kastmo led all players with 19 kills and also pitched in 15 digs. Mellinger finished with a career-high 18 kills, and she also had 15 digs to give her 1,239 in her career, moving her into ninth place in the A&M career records.
Sawatzky also completed a double-double with season highs in both assists (48) and digs (15), and senior libero Megan Pendergast led all players with a season-high 22 digs.
Kentucky’s Ashley Frazier surpassed the 1,000 career kill milestone as she tied Billings for the team lead with 16 kills. Billings also added five aces and six blocks as Kentucky outblocked the Aggies, 12.5 to 7.5, and outhit A&M, .229 to .187, for the match. Two-time SEC Libero of the Year Stephanie Klefot led the Wildcats in digs with 20.
“Once again, we’ve got to continue to work on our blocking,” Corbelli said. “During the first two sets, we were even in blocks. After that, they got seven more and we got two more. That’s not good, so we have to continue to work on that.
“It’s one match that we can’t overreact to,” Corbelli said. “We did some darn good things but weren’t able to finish. It happens to a lot of teams, and it happened to us today. I think the best part of that is that it motivates my team in practice more to work on the little things that we need to work on, and they know what those things are. I’m encouraged. I still believe in my team. I think they are a top quality group and we’ll just continue to challenge them and prepare them for the next match.”
A&M makes its first SEC road trip of the year next weekend as the Aggies take on Missouri in Columbia on Friday and then face Alabama in Tuscaloosa on Sunday. Live audio of the matches will be available for free on AggieAthletics.com, with Chelsea Reber calling the action.