Here's the tournament final of a conference I covered in full last year. No such luck this year, but I'm still pleased to be around for the final. A dance ticket gets punched when we have a winner here.
It's been kind of a down year for the Missouri Valley. Losing your best team to another conference will do that to ya, as Creighton are now in the Big East (despite the state of Nebraska being anything but 'East'). That leaves Wichita State with the mantel of best in the Valley, and they're certainly the favourites in this match. They make this tournament basically every year, and are making their third straight appearance in the finals. For Southern Illinois, it's only their second straight appearance, and they've never been to the NCAA tournament. It's also the eighth straight year in the MIssouri Valley tournament that a quarterfinalist is playing on the final day, meaning they've played three matches in three days. No sweat.
The Salukis unambiguously need this automatic bid to make the tournament. For Wichita State, they might make it as an at-large, but of course they'd rather not have to find out. A Wichita State win tonight likely means the Missouri Valley will be a 1-bid conference in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2005.
The first several rallies of the match were long, mostly favouring the Salukis. They took three of the first four points, two off kills by Taylor Pippen. The 3-1 rally appeared to end with a termination for Ashley Andrade on the Shocker side, but she was whistled for a net touch on her follow-through. The Shockers responded with a first-ball sideout on the next rally, energising the home fans. The Salukis got the point back on the next rally, when Shocker setter Chelsey Feekin missed her connection with the hitter up the middle on the quick attempt. Jessica Whitehead found the floor on the next rally, and then she and Emily Less put up a strong double block to reject Sam Sanders, and the Salukis led by five at 7-2.
Elizabeth Field then scored the next two kills in succession, bringing Wichita State back within three. After a few sideouts, a Saluki overpass on 9-6 resulted in a net fault agains Hannah Kaminsky, making it a two-point set. Ashlyn Driskill found her way through the block on 10-8, and the rather large early Saluki lead was already almost gone. A double touch on Kaminsky at 11-10, and it was indeed gone. 11-all was one of those classic women's volleyball rallies with dig after dig after dig after dig, and the crowd loved it. Eventually, Pippen terminated for the Salukis. A double block by Sanders and Field put the Shockers on top for the first time a little later at 13-12, but Whitehead's kill a little later put the Salukis back on top at 14-13. Field played a nifty shot on the next rally, seemingly messing up her timing, but double-clutching on the ball (not double contacting) and getting a tip over the net for the kill, while she had at least one foot on the ground. Hard to describe I guess. A Saluki sideout brought us to the media timeout with them ahead 15-14.
The Shockers took the lead again at 17-16, and while the webcast was showing that replay, they got the block up on the next rally to give them their first two-point lead on 18-16. That prompted Southern Illinois to call timeout. Meg Viggars powered through the block for the sideout on the first rally back. Leah Edgerton's serve on 18-17 elicited an overpass, and Whitehead gobbled it up like Thanksgiving leftovers, tying the set again at 18-all. With a bit of a hair trigger, Wichita State called time themselves.
The timeout worked — Edgerton's next serve found the net. 19-18 was a long-ish rally, ended emphatically by Andrade up the middle. When the Salukis hit long from the left side on the next rally, putting them into a three-point hole, they called their last timeout. Another long hit after the timeout put the Shockers up four. Then a service ace for Feekin made it 23-18, as a tight first set got away from the Salukis in the end. An ace for Viggars, off a miscommunication between Dani Mostrom and Jordan Hinkle got the Salukis a point back, but with the Shocker sideout on the next rally they reached set point. A service ace for Mostrom sealed the deal, a 25-20 final.
There were a few oddities in set 1, as the Shockers won comfortably despite having only 10 kills. The Salukis had 14, but gave away far too many points on faults and unforced errors. They hit .128 for the set to .206 for Wichita State.
The Shockers started off strong in set 2, with a big kill for Andrade, a block against Whitehead, a sneaky service ace for Feekin, and a big solo block for Andrade staking them to a 4-0 lead. Less finally got the Salukis their first sideout there, getting her team on the board. On 5-2, the Shockers really showed their class, with Feekin deftly saving a back-row overpass and perfectly setting Field for the kill. First ball side out. 6-2 was a long rally, the point going to the Shockers. Field's hit was way long, but the down official called a touch. SIU coach Justin Ingram protested for a moment, obviously to no avail. Replays were inconclusive. I certainly thought I heard a touch in real time, but that's really not how you're supposed to call it.
A kill on serve for Whitehead brought SIU back within three on 8-5, but Feekin responded with her fourth kill in as many tries off a seemingly undeniable setter dump. It's a wonder she wasn't going to it even more often. The Salukis missed a chance to draw closer on 9-6, as Katie Baki's serve was a beauty, but the Shockers still managed to get the kill in transition moments later. A net touch on Whitehead meant the Salukis were back down by five at 11-6. Finally, on 11-7, Feekin missed a hit, though this was a full-on swing rather than a dump (it looked like she wanted to set Andrade, who wasn't quite in position). It went sideout after sideout from there to 14-11. The Shockers' attempt to sideout to the media timeout finished one rally short when Sanders hit into the double block to make it 14-12. She got the point right back on the next rally to make it 15-12, and the media timeout arrived.
A couple of great serves for Gaby Urban, the latter an ace, put the Shockers ahead five again at 17-12. Field and Feekin put up the double block against Elly Braaten, making it 18-12 at SIU's timeout. The first rally back was a long one, with some nice defence on both sides. It ended with Feekin very smartly dumping against an opposing side that was all out of system. The Shockers' run at last ended on 19-12, with a wide hit and no touch from the left side. It touched off a run off three in a row to make it back within 19-15, and the Shockers called their first timeout of the set.
The Shockers went to Field on the right-side slide attack coming out of the timeout, but the Salukis put the block up and got the point. Pippen and Whitehead put the block up on the other side on the next rally, and suddenly it was a tight set again at 19-17. Katie Reilly put a stop to things on the next rally, terminating from the left side to get WSU to 20 first at 20-17. Viggars tried to send over a freeball, while flat-footed, on 20-17, and had it hit the net. That's gotta make you feel about 2 inches tall. A falconesque serve for Reilly on 21-17, and the margin was five again as the Salukis called time.
A net violation on Pippen inched the Shockers closer to victory. A yellow card was then assessed on SIU coach Ingram, for his continuous chirping. The officials gave him a verbal warning earlier, so this was absolutely merited. Field energetically found the floor on the next rally, a big kill up the middle to get the crowd on their feet. It was Driskill who found the floor on set point, capping off a 6-0 run to finish it with a 25-17 final.
The Salukis took three of the first four in set 3, staking an early lead. The Shockers then took three of the next four themselves, tying the set at 4-all. A solo block for Field put the homestanding Wichita State team ahead for the first time in the set. A left-side kill for Driskill put them up two at 8-6, her fifth kill of the match. An easy dump for Feekin on 2 made it 9-6, and for the first time in the match we had an early timeout.
A couple of quick kills for Pippen off the slide attack, followed by the rare rejection of Feekin on a dump attempt, and the Salukis came even at 9-all. Then Pippen and Kaminsky tossed up the double block against Driskill to make it 10-9, the Salukis again on top. The 10-9 rally appeared to go the Shockers' way, as Feekin's hit was ruled in by the flagger. The up referee overruled him, giving the point to the Salukis by ruling the ball out. There was not a sufficient replay camera angle to judge it that way. On the heels of five straight for their opponents, the Shockers called time there.
On the first rally back, Driskill hit just wide to stake Southern Illinois to a 12-9 lead. The run finally ended when Kaminsky was whistled for a double hit, making it 12-10. The Shockers briefly drew back a point, but Andrade's way long hit put SIU back up three. On 15-12, the flagger made a really late call calling Kaminsky's serve in for an ace. WSU coach Chris Lamb got up and crowed about it, but he really didn't need to, as the up ref had already overruled to make it point Shockers. The replay certainly appeared to show the ball was out. The crowd's momentary outrage seemed to fuel the home team, as they came back even at 15-all upon the Salukis' final timeout.
Wichita State went back up a point at 17-16 with a service ace from Alyssa Carney, that landed a good three feet in bounds. I'm not sure how the Saluki back line let it go. 17-16 was a frenetic rally, ending with a great dig from Sanders, a good bump set from Urban, and an emphatic kill for Reilly to get the crowd up and shouting once again. They sat and groaned as Carney's next serve drilled the net, and then they got up again for Sanders' big right-side kill to make it 19-17 WSU. On the next rally, the Shockers played some fun pinball with themselves, twice keeping a ball miraculously alive when it looked sure to be terminated. Unlike what usually happens in those cases, they rebounded to get the kill and go up 20-17. Reilly's kill on the next rally made it 21-17, and the Shockers surely smelled blood in the water.
Whitehead got the Salukis a token sideout on 21-18, but the ball rolled on. A recent sub, MaryAshton Floyd, found the floor to bring her team to the cusp of match point on 23-18, and a hitting error from Pippen made it 24-18. A long rally ended with Field's right-side termination, and it was all over.
#1 Wichita State d. #3 Southern Illinoius (25-20, 25-17, 25-18)
You've kinda got to chalk it up to experience in the end. SIU looked like deer in the headlights as set 3 got away from them. In fact, all three sets featured protracted WSU runs to end them (7-2, 6-0, and 6-1). Simply put, the stronger team won. I don't too much buy into the notion that a conference tournament final is an intimidating stage, but the actual physical stage, e.g. Wichita State's home court, certainly could have played a role in deciding this one. The Salukis mostly have a young core for the future (they graduate three this year, but no one with a regular role will be a senior next year), so there's no reason to think that falling just short is their peak. They'll be back.
For tonight, it was Whitehead leading all scorers with 11 kills. She was the only player on either side in double figures. Andrade and Reilly each had 8 to lead the Shockers. It was kind of odd to see Andrade, co-Player of the Year in the MVC this year (with her teammate Feekin) sort of disappear in set 3. She had only 1 kill in the final frame. It's possible she was a little banged up (there was a moment near the end of the first set where she appeared to land awkwardly). Feekin and Field each chipped in 7 kills for the Shockers. Serving was a big edge for Wichita State, as their 7:3 aces/errors was dramatically better than SIU's 2:5. That's a point difference, of course, though 7 points doesn't make or break a match. It's psychological, too — how big a bummer is it to get aced or to miss your serve entirely? — and it's also the serves that don't show up on the score sheet.
Big congratulations to the Shockers for advancing to the NCAA tournament. What remains to be seen is whether they'll do even better this year than last (their Sweet 16 run). Chances are they get sent to Lawrence, Kansas again (or possibly Lincoln, Nebraska) so they'll have their work cut out for them. I'm sure they like it that way.