BATON ROUGE - The LSU volleyball team was unable to hold 2-1 advantage as South Carolina charged back to take the final two frames and the five-set decision [25-18, 26-28, 16-25, 25-18, 15-12] Sunday at USC's Volleyball Competition Facility.
The Tigers (4-7, 0-2 SEC) dropped back-to-back matches to start SEC play for the first time since the 2008 season, while South Carolina (13-0, 2-0 SEC) maintained its best start in program history. The Gamecocks also snapped LSU's seven-match winning streak in the series dating back to 2008.
LSU compiled a .256 to .240 hitting percentage edge and outblocked the Gamecocks by a 17-10 margin. The 17 blocks were a season-high for the Tigers. However, South Carolina was able to muster a 68-62 and 67-63 advantages in the kills and digs departments, respectively.
"I can't ask this team to play any harder and with more heart than they did during this match," head coach Fran Flory said. "I thought everybody did a great job of focusing and doing their job. We were really and truly a couple of touches away from winning the match. We were a lot of touches away from winning Friday at Alabama so this is a step in the right direction."
The Tigers had three players provide double digit kills sparked by Madie Jones' season-high 18 spikes on a .429 hitting clip. Desiree Elliott nearly picked up her first career double-double. She ripped 16 kills on a .323 hitting ratio and recorded a career-best nine blocks.
Helen Boyle cranked a season's high 15 kills and added nine digs, while Khourtni Fears and Cati Leak tallied four kills apiece. Fears also secured a career-high seven blocks whereas Leak registered six digs and a career-best five stuffs. Madi Mahaffey came away with three kills and three blocks, while Katie Lindelow chipped in four digs and converted 20-of-21 passing attempts during their first extended action of the season.
LSU transitioned into a 6-2 offense with one day of practice between matches. In her first career start, Jackie Gerig handed out a career-high 29 assists to go along with seven digs. Malorie Pardo distributed 21 assists and tallied 12 digs en route to her first double-double of the season. It marked the first time since Oct. 5, 2007 against Alabama that LSU had two players garner 20-plus assists.
South Carolina was paced by Juliette Thevenin, who hammered home 22 kills and 11 digs. She was joined by Cara Howley's 11 kills, eight digs and five blocks. Bethanie Thomas and Darian Dozer totaled nine kills each. Thomas claimed 14 digs, while Dozier collected five blocks. On the back row, Paige Wheeler sprawled out for a match-high 18 digs.
"Madie and Helen had nice matches on the outside," Flory said. "Madie was amazing, we challenged her and Desiree to lead a little better. There were a few situations where Helen tried to do a bit too much when she was put in difficult situations. She's a young player that will learn and continue to get better."
LSU battled back from a 7-3 hole during the deciding stanza. The Tigers received kills from Pardo and Mahaffey to ignite a flurry of seven of the next 10 points. LSU forced Thevenin into consecutive hitting errors, one coming on an Elliott-Leak block, to deadlock the tally at 10-10.
A long rally was ended by a Gerig double contact followed by a Thomas kill and Boyle attack error to vault South Carolina back in-front 13-10. LSU charged back within one point after a Thevenin service error coupled with an Elliott ace. The Gamecocks responded with a Thomas sideout spike and a block on Fears to secure the 15-12 triumph.
"We proved that we don't have to be a middle-oriented team to be successful," Flory said. "Our middles did a fantastic job of blocking once they began to execute the game plan. We stayed patient on their back row offense. If we would have closed a couple more blocks in the fifth set, we probably turn the tide. A hand position here or there could have changed the outcome of the match. Credit South Carolina because they made the plays when they had to have them."
South Carolina controlled a majority of the first set behind a .312 hitting percentage and an 83 percent sideout efficiency. The Gamecocks also took advantage of six LSU service errors. Ahead 15-14, South Carolina pieced together four straight points and 10 of the final 14 points of the frame to collect a 25-18 win. Howley slapped three kills during the run.
The Gamecocks were poised to go up by a two-set margin, but LSU fought off three set points to grind out a gritty 28-26 victory. Elliott and Boyle cranked kills teamed with a Fears solo block to wipe away the set points. Jones buried consecutive kills of her own to clinch the frame and even the match at a set apiece. The trio of Boyle, Elliott and Jones combined for 15 of LSU's 16 kills during the set.
"I was proud that we were able bounce back, play well and win a tight set on the road," Flory said. "I thought we gained a lot of confidence. Credit South Carolina for making a few adjustments that we weren't able to adjust to. We need to be little more patient on both the offensive and defensive side in certain situations."
LSU carried that momentum into set three and raced out to a 7-0 lead on Jones' serve. Elliott and Leak were involved in a pair of blocks, while Elliott pounded two kills. The Tigers ripped a .367 hitting percentage and totaled seven stuffs. LSU led wire-to-wire and came away with a 25-16 triumph.
South Carolina stayed alive as the Gamecocks rolled a .395 attacking clip in the fourth set. Down 7-6, LSU was forced into five hitting errors which enabled USC to rip off a 12-4 spurt and seize control of the stanza. Thevenin exploded for seven kills which included the set clincher for the 25-18 victory.
After spending the first four weekends on the road, LSU makes its much-anticipated home debut of the 2012 season and squares off versus No. 24 Kentucky. Friday's first serve is set for 7 p.m. inside the Maravich Center with live video and live stats available inside the Geaux Zone on LSUsports.net/live.
For all of the latest news and information on Tiger volleyball, visit www.lsusports.net/volleyball. Fans can also follow the program on its social media outlets at www.Facebook.com/lsuvolleyball along with @lsuvolleyball and @lsucoachfran on Twitter.
Admission to all 2012 home matches at the Maravich Center are free compliments of the Advocate's "Geaux Free" program.