SEATTLE, Wash. – Cati Leak powered home a match-leading 22 kills to spark the LSU volleyball team to its fourth two-set comeback of the season as the Tigers outlasted No. 24 Michigan in a five-set slugfest [23-25, 9-25, 25-14, 25-19, 15-10] Friday at Alaska Airlines Arena in-front of 2,730 fans during the opening round of the 2013 NCAA Tournament.
With the win, LSU (19-12) snapped an 18-match losing streak to AVCA Top 25 opponents which dated back to the 2010 season. The victory also gave the Tigers their first NCAA Tournament win since 2009 and their ninth five-set triumph of the season equaling the 1985 squad for a single-season record.
LSU advances to face No. 3 national seed Washington in Saturday’s second round. First serve is scheduled for 9 p.m. CT with free live audio available inside the Geaux Zone at www.LSUsports.net/live.
“This is a stepping stone win for our program,” head coach Fran Flory said. “This team has been close in some matches that we could have won, and we couldn’t quite get over that hump until tonight. It’s not about beating a ranked opponent, it’s about playing a quality opponent and maintaining a level of consistency that will give you an opportunity to make a few plays and win a match. We bounced all over the place during the first two sets. Once we stabilized, we didn’t bounce back down again. I’m so proud of the players for being stable of every aspect of our play.”
A key to LSU’s comeback was its defense effort. Michigan (18-14), a 2012 NCAA Final Four participant, ripped 27 kills on a .333 hitting percentage during the first two sets. Over the final three frames, the Tigers changed the momentum and secured eight of their 13 blocks. LSU also limited U-M’s offense to 27 kills and a .078 hitting ratio.
Conversely, the Tigers connected for 42 of their 65 kills and a .255 hitting ratio during the final three stanzas. Malorie Pardo charted 45 assists and 12 digs en route to her 20th double-double on the season. She also provided a career-high six kills and added two blocks.
“We knew we’ve been in that situation before, and that’s something we kept telling ourselves in the locker between sets two and three,” Pardo said. “We knew what we had to do. All we needed was to make it our style of match and take care of business of our side. We did our jobs, and everything is going to work out in our favor if we have that mindset.”
For Leak, it was her seventh straight match with double digit kills and the fourth time in 2013 that the Alabama native garnered 20-plus spikes. She also corralled nine digs and chipped in three blocks.
LSU’s back row was sparked by Haley Smith, who sprawled out for 18 of her career-high 29 digs during the final three stanzas. She also dished out a career-best five assists. Katie Lindelow picked up 11 digs and was 32-for-33 on her reception attempts.
“Haley is a winner who continues to fight no matter what situation is thrown at her,” Flory said. “Our team motto is “Earn This” because I believe when you earn something you truly own it. She’s the poster person for our motto, and she’s a big reason of why our team owned this match.”
Briana Holman, an All-SEC and All-SEC Freshmen Team pick, belted 15 kills and added six blocks whereas Helen Boyle chipped in 14 kills and 16 digs to claim her seventh double dip of the season for the Tigers.
Desiree Elliott came away with six kills, five blocks and four blocks. Off the bench, Madi Mahaffey registered two kills on three errorless swings to go along with four stuffs over the last three sets.
Michigan was led by Molly Toon’s 15 kills, but the senior outside hitter had to use 61 swings. She scooped up 11 digs and recorded six blocks. The Wolverines also received 14 kills and nine blocks from Jennifer Cross, while Abby Cole tacked on 14 kills and nine blocks for U-M.
After erasing a 2-0 hole, LSU fired out with eight of the first 10 points of the winner-take-all fifth set. Holman and Leak buried two kills apiece and teamed for a block to give the Tigers an early 5-1 edge. Michigan charged back to within three points on two occasions, the latest at 13-10. The Wolverines relied on a pair of Cross kills and two stuffs involving Cross. LSU turned to Leak for a sideout spike followed by an Elliott-Mahaffey block on Toon to cap the 15-10 comeback win.
“It was great maturity shown by our players just to keep playing and understand that we have to terminate balls during that fifth set,” Flory said. “The other side of it was we earned the fifth set. To score 11 points on kills in a fifth set, that’s the type of performance that leads to wins most of the time.”
Out of the locker room, LSU raced out to a 4-0 advantage to start set three behind two Leak kills coupled with a Holman-Mahaffey block. Ahead 10-7, the Tigers ripped off eight consecutive points to bust the frame open to an 18-7 margin. Boyle and Holman popped two kills apiece to ignite the spurt. Pardo capped LSU’s 17-kill performance on a .452 hitting percentage with a second-contact spike to complete the 25-14 victory.
The two teams split the first 12 points of the fourth set. LSU reeled off the next four points with two Leak kills sandwiched around a pair of Michigan errors to make it 10-6. The Wolverines pulled back within two points six times, but the Tigers answered the bell each time with a sideout. Three of the conversions were courtesy of Leak kills which included the last one at 21-19. Holman knocked home two kills and paired with Mahaffey for a block to close out the 25-19 win.
“Cati has come through for us a lot this season,” Pardo said. “If I need a swing, I know where I can go. She’s been really extremely focused and keys into everything especially in practice. That mindset shows in the matches too. She hits the ball as hard as she can with the best shot she has in each play. That makes her a phenomenal hitter.”
The first set featured a match-best 13 ties and five lead changes. Neither team could muster more than a three-point advantage. With Michigan up 17-16, Leak slapped a kill and was involved in two blocks to push LSU ahead by a 19-17 margin. The Wolverines regrouped with seven of the next nine points aided by three Cross kills to regain a 24-21 edge. LSU fought off two set points, but Cross provided her sixth kill of the stanza to vault Michigan to the winner’s circle, 25-23.
The Wolverines kept the momentum and charged out to a 12-2 lead to start set two. Michigan’s defense racked up seven blocks and forced LSU into a negative hitting percentage for the frame. Toon nailed six kills on 10 errorless swings, and the Wolverines tucked away a 25-9 decision to secure a two-set lead.
“I’m super proud of the resiliency the team showed,” Flory said. “We’re thrilled with the result. The lineup switch with moving Leak to the left side and Mahaffey coming in to play on the right side changed their rhythm. This team understands that they’re never out of a match. After getting beat 25-9 and to not let them bother them is a great tribute to what they really believe they can accomplish.”
LSU has earned 190 victories sparked by five 20-win seasons to go along with seven SEC Western Division titles since 2005. The Tigers also are one of 29 programs to appear in at least seven NCAA Tournaments during the past nine seasons.
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 and @lsuvb on Instagram.