VB Falls in Mortar Board Finale to Kentucky, 3-2

VB Falls in Mortar Board Finale to Kentucky, 3-2

Sorry for the delay on this one; among other challenges, it took a while to find a site that has volleyball PBP so that I could do a proper recap. I can describe a couple of straightforward wins without wanting to double-check every detail, but this match really needs that kind of accuracy to be recapped properly.

And what a match it was! Despite the fact that the Good Gals fell, as this space predicted not too long ago, the fact that it turned from a probable sweep to a possible stirring comeback, complete with match points averted by both sides, meant that while not everyone left satisfied (other than from escaping the sweltering heat in Holloway), at least we got our money's worth, as Kentucky prevailed in five (20-25, 18-25, 26-24, 25-21, 18-20).

Set-by-set recap

Turns out it was that kind of night, for both Cuttino and the Boilers.

Although MB Faye Adelaja was healthy, she did not play, likely meaning whatever injury she had is close to (or at) 100%, but not worth risking in an early-season match. Purdue started with the same lineup they used in the first two matches, with Ashley Evans at setter, Shavona Cuttino at MB, Danielle Cuttino and Blake Mohler at MB/OH, Azariah Stahl at OH, and Carissa Damler at DS, with true freshman Natalie Haben at libero. Kentucky made just one change from the lineup they used in both of Friday's matches, with sophomore Brooke Morgan starting at MB/OH in place of senior Anni Thomasson.

The first set was all Wildcats, as the visitors ran off the first 3 points of the set and never let Purdue into it.  Despite an early service error, Kentucky ended up +6 in the service game (5 aces/2 errors to 0 and 3 for Purdue), and that was essentially the difference. The Wildcats targeted Stahl in the back row with success, scoring consecutive points on aces to her on either side of a Purdue timeout during a run that pushed the UK lead to 6, 13-7. Kentucky would lead by as many as 8, when a Darian Mack ace put them up 22-14; Purdue responded with three straight, including two kills by Stahl, and two more after a UK point got them to 23-19, but the sides traded points to end the set at 25-20. (For what it's worth, at 24-20, Shondell inserted Linnea Rohrsen to serve for Mohler, and the Wildcats won the point.)

Set two looked to be different in more ways than one, as the Boilers took an early lead off an unusual Mohler-to-Evans kill. The Good Gals would lead by 2 on two different occasions, including a three-point run with Damler serving to put them up 9-7, but the Wildcats consistently held off Purdue's attacks and prevented longer runs; a Mohler kill from Evans tied the score at 12, but three straight UK points gave the Wildcats a lead they'd hold for the rest of the set. An Ashley Dusek ace to Damler finished set 2, 25-18. At this point, between the extreme heat and the bad news on the scoreboard, at least half of the sellout crowd left to get more drinks, cool air, or a break from the stress; quite a few didn't return. One guest of note was at-this-point-not-yet-former AD Morgan J Burke: good to see him supporting the team (as he has done on a number of occasions that I've seen), and also good for him to experience the ridiculous conditions that were a direct result of his decision-making. Maybe Bobinski took notes?

Shondell juggled his rotation a bit, sending out Sherridan Atkinson to start set 3 in place of Damler, putting the Boilers' tallest lineup on the floor first. While the immediate effect wasn't great (a 2-0 UK lead), overall, the set was exactly what you'd expect from two evenly-matched teams. Neither side led by more than three points, which was mostly a result of successful attacking (UK hit .361 in set 3, Purdue hit .286). The key moment in the set, and possibly even the match, was at 15-12 Purdue, with Stahl serving. Mack placed a shot that was a bit wide according to the vast majority of the people remaining in Holloway ... except for the two people who mattered, the one who called it in, and the up official, who is not only bad at communication but also bad in general. (Volleyball is like other sports in that you can quickly learn who's good at their jobs and who probably would be better in other jobs.)

You may not be aware of this, but volleyball uses a system of discipline just like soccer, complete with cards. I've never seen cards issued to players before, but they do book coaches ... and apparently, emotion works in volleyball just like it does in basketball. Sensing that this could be the beginning of the end, Shondell made a point of explaining to the down ref how the ball was clearly out - complete with someone on the Purdue bench indicating exactly where it had landed - in order to make sure he'd taken the time he was allotted to complain. After that, he turned to the up official, and instead of sending Evans over to get an explanation, he basically yelled at the up until he got what he wanted: a yellow card. The booking immediately fired up both the Block Party and the remaining crowd; the Boilers got the ensuing point, on a Stahl-to-Evans kill, and that would have been enough ... except Kentucky used three straight Leah Edmond kills to even the match at 16. A service error by Dusek and an ace from Evans put the Boilers up 18-16, but three more Wildcat points reversed the lead. Purdue tied it at 19; Kentucky scored two more for 21-19. Purdue ran off three more to lead 22-21; after a UK timeout, the Wildcats retook the lead, 23-22. A Sherridan Atkinson kill tied the score ... and Shondell sent in freshman S Lexi Dorn as a DS to replace Rohrsen serving. A Mack kill gave UK its first match point, but Mohler put away an Evans set to tie it at 24, and two Danielle Cuttino kills got Purdue on the set board, 2-1.

Middle blocker, outside hitter, whatever, just give me a good set and let me go to work.

Thomasson replaced Morgan for set 4, and once again, the lineup change seemed to help the other side more, as Purdue scored the first two points of the set; the Wildcats would lead 10-8, but an 11-3 Purdue run put the Good Gals firmly in control at 19-13, and they withstood a late Kentucky rally with Dusek serving to take the set, 25-21. There really wasn't much of interest here, as the Boilers were playing well enough to earn a fifth set, hitting .522 to UK's .312, and Kentucky seemed content to try to win the fifth instead of the fourth.

Set 5 turned out to be the type of set that Ashley Judd might have scripted; sadly, she's a UK fan, so it didn't end the way we'd have wanted it to. Three straight UK attack errors gave Purdue a solid 3-0 lead - it doesn't seem like much in the first four, but when you're playing to 15, 3 can be a lot. Purdue would regain a three-point lead at 4-1, 6-3, 7-4, and 8-5, leading at the turn ... but Kentucky scored the next 4 points, the last two on attack errors by Danielle Cuttino. Purdue tied it at 9, but Rohrsen came in for Mohler and served into the net; a Shavona Cuttino attack error put the Cats ahead 11-9. Danielle got Purdue within 1 and then had another error to give UK another two-point lead; another Dusek service error put Brooke Peters serving at 12-11 UK. An Olivia Dailey kill had UK within reach, 13-11, but then Stahl took over, knocking down three straight kills to put Purdue in the barn, 14-13, and the semi-capacity crowd was on its feet, waiting for the point to complete the comeback and send UK home with two losses.

It never came. Kentucky scored twice to serve for the match at 15-14 and then again at 16-15 and 17-16. The Boilers then scored twice to give Rohrsen a chance to serve for the match, but a Mack kill gave Harper Hempel the serve, and two more Purdue attack errors finished the set, 20-18.

Overall thoughts

Maybe she is doing a one-handed pushup while digging an attack that's inches from the court. Is libero Spanish for superhero?

  • Haben showed definite improvement from Friday to Saturday, which is one of the reasons why bloggers don't get to pick starting lineups; it's much easier now to see why the libero jersey is on a true freshman. With solid defensive play and quality serving, she's provided a much-needed boost to the back line. I'd still like to see Van Zelst playing as well - I think Purdue would be better with more DS on the court - but it seems unlikely that will happen in 2016.
  • Purdue was outhit for the second time against a tall team, .252 to .185. Atkinson was completely shut down (-.174), as was Danielle Cuttino (.027), leaving Blake Mohler (.500 in 18 attacks) as the lone OH/MB to attack efficiently. (Ashley Evans also hit .714 in 14 attacks.) Some of that is due to the change in timing with Danielle and Blake being used outside more; there were several times when it was clear that the hitter was expecting a quick set and the setter was too far away to deliver one. Some of this should improve in the weeks to come; some is likely a side effect of the small squad.
  • The service game didn't seem nearly as bad in the box score as it did in Holloway, with Kentucky -5 (8 aces/13 errors) and Purdue -1 (4 and 5). That's probably because of set 1. Haben and Peters continue to have dangerous serves; it's a shame to see Rohrsen continually subbed in to send a floater that every single person on the court is expecting. Peters, Haben, and Van Zelst are all listed at 5'9", and Dorn is 6'0". It wouldn't surprise me if Shondell is recruiting taller DS in part because there's only so much you can do with your serve when you're significantly shorter. Damler has yet to commit a service error in 12 sets, in part because her serves are almost always hard. Food for thought?
  • Dorn's appearance was good largely because it means she won't be redshirted, and the Boilers have to have experience at S behind Evans. Lexi didn't get any reps there Saturday, but hopefully those will come later in non-conference play. With no PT for Olivia Van Zelst, she seems certain to redshirt.
  • Shavona Cuttino is looking really good so far, leading the Boilers in blocks with 6.5. Her attack probably needs to improve in terms of timing, but that will come with experience - it's not an accident that Danielle and Faye are probably the two best MB attackers on the team. Mohler has shown really good timing both inside and out, so hopefully she continues to see a lot of playing time when Adelaja is back in the mix.
  • How long is a five-set match that goes into overtime? Longer than you think, especially when the lack of AC means you give your opponent the ability to stop the match at pretty much every dead ball. Advantage? Really? Maybe Mr. Burke noticed - it's too much to ask that the crowd and the players keep their momentum going through minutes of inaction as spot after spot after spot on the court is wiped up. At least nobody got hurt.

Next up

Purdue travels to South Bend for Labor Day weekend and the Shamrock Invitational, opening against Howard at 4:30 PM on Friday, then facing Coastal Carolina at 10 AM Saturday and the host Irish at 7 PM Saturday. WSHY will have the audio for all three matches, as will purduesports.com (for free, even!). BTN just redid its site to be even less useful than before, so it took me a while to figure out that subscribers will not be able to watch any of the matches, but hey! Those kind folks up north are providing free video to all six matches (including the three in which Not-Purdue plays Not-Purdue) at Notre Dame's site: look at http://www.und.com/sports/w-volley/spec-rel/shamrock-2016.html for links.

UPDATE: Turns out the UND site was wrong, and there is no free video for any of the matches; it's since been corrected with no explanation that I see. Well then. 

Howard comes in at 4-0, fresh off a three-match sweep of the DC Volleyball Challenge and a midweek win over UMBC. The Bison feature six seniors, including libero Morgan Marlbrough (68 digs) and MB Whitney Fields (.240 attack, 7 blocks), and have held opponents to a .106 attack percentage so far in 2016. They won the MEAC last year, earning a spot against 7-seed Penn State in the NCAA tournament and falling in three sets.

Coastal Carolina is also unbeaten, sweeping the Florida International Invitational last weekend ... and by sweeping, I mean sweeping, winning each match in straight sets. The Chanticleers were also a 2015 NCAA participant after going unbeaten in Big South regular-season and tournament play, losing at 16-seed Creighton in 4 sets. Like Purdue, Coastal Carolina isn't particularly deep, using primarily 9 players so far, but they've dominated their opposition, outhitting opponents .320 to .100 and posting a +2 at the line (19 aces, 17 errors) to a -4 (10 and 14) for their opposition. Senior OH Tahleia Bishop is hitting .364, which sounds pretty good until you realize it's just third on the team behind fellow senior MB Annayka Legros (.395) and sophomore MB Dora Lulic (.632). Lulic is also +3 at the line, with 3 aces and no errors, as is sophomore S Sara Boothe; Boothe and junior Kate Federico split time at setter. 

The Irish join Purdue's opponents with a big 0 in the loss column, and like the Chanticleers, they have yet to lose a set this season, sweeping Seton Hall, Cleveland State and Western Michigan in the Golden Dome Invitational. Notre Dame, unlike their guests, is coming off a stinker of a 2015; they were just 7-25, 2-18 in ACC play (at least they beat Clemson twice), and that was basically the same as their 6-24 mark in 2014. Their first 3-0 start since 2011 has been keyed by junior MB Sam Fry (25 kills, .236, team-leading 6.5 blocks) and sophomore libero Ryan DeJarld (team-leading 39 digs); also of note is junior OH Maddie Plumlee (20 kills, .230, 2 blocks), who is in fact the sister of those Plumlees

Schedule strength is always something to keep in mind; despite the fact that Purdue is the only team of the four with a loss, Massey expects the Boilers to roll easily in all three matches. They should be good preparation for the Stanford Invitational the following weekend; even so, Purdue's toughest opponent in non-conference play is likely one they'll see in West Lafayette as part of the Stacey Clark Classic, when 2015 Final Four participant and current #4 Kansas comes to town. 

All images courtesy of Purdue Sports

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