The Tennessee volleyball team ended the season on a high note, narrowly defeating LSU in five sets (26-28, 25-23, 25-16, 18-25, 15-11). The Lady Vols are red-hot to end the season, winning six of their last eight to finish at 12-8 on the year, fifth place in the SEC.
Thursday’s match was among the most competitive of the year for the Lady Vols, and the Tigers made it clear that they were not going down without a fight. Before this series against the Tennessee, the Tigers were on a four game win streak and looking as if they could compete with anyone in the SEC.
Set one saw the Tigers at their best, running through All-SEC Senior Taylor Bannister who notched seven early kills to lead a come-from-behind effort to take set one with extra points, 28-26. Despite three kills each by Lily Felts and Morgahn Fingall, the Lady Vols were not able to hold onto a 15-9 lead that they created early.
"If you look at the stat-lines we have a lot of similarities," head coach Eve Rackham-Watt explained. “They’re a good team (that is) well coached, and they present a lot of physical challenges. They definitely made us work for it.”
Set two was a similar chess match between the two SEC squads, this time seeing Tennessee come out on top. Like set one, the Lady Vols jumped out to a commanding 15-7 lead and looked primed to waltz to a set two victory, but LSU had other plans. Behind three kills from Paige Flickinger and intense offensive pressure, the Tigers roared all the way back to tie the match at 21.
At this point in set two, Tennessee middle blocker Ava Bell took over. The junior led the Lady Vols to three points off of two kills and an important duo block with Fingall to give their team the set victory and provide the momentum going into set three, where the Lady Vols dominated LSU in the most lopsided set of the day, 25-16.
"When it counted, we stepped up. When we needed kills, we got them from all hitters… I think that’s the definition of a team effort,” Bell said on the crucial set two victory.
If Thursday’s contest was anything like the rest of the matches this season, the Lady Vols would have breezed to a set four victory to win the day. Of the 12 wins Tennessee earned this season, six of them ended with a score of 3-1; However, for just the third time this season, Tennessee had to go on to decide a match in the fifth set. After the Lady Vols dropped set four 18-25, LSU and Bannister had all the momentum to try and steal a season finale victory.
Set five was the toughest of the match for Tennessee, but team effort triumphed. After knotting the score at four, the Lady Vols put their foot down and jumped to a definitive 11-7 lead. With just one point to go to win the match, Felts sent the Tigers home with a final kill to take the set, and the victory, 15-11.
“When you get into that fifth set it's just a sprint. It can really go either way,” coach Rackham stated after the match. “We played a little bit cleaner than they did, but to me, its understanding the pace of that fifth set, and knowing how important each point really is.”
Looking toward the future
Tennessee now awaits the selection show on April 4th to determine whether or not it will travel to Omaha to participate in the 2021 NCAA women’s volleyball tournament. At fifth place in the SEC, the Lady Vols would normally have favorable chances to enter the 64 team postseason tournament. However, the NCAA announced at the beginning of the season that only 48 teams would be invited in effort to address concerns over COVID-19.
Despite Tennessee’s strong finish to the season, many questions remain unanswered as to whether or not the Lady Vols will play again this season.