STATESBORO, Ga. (astateredwolves.com) – The top-seeded Arkansas State volleyball team defeated fifth-seeded Little Rock 3-0 (25-20, 25-17, 26-24) to extend the nation's longest winning streak to 23 matches and advance to the finals of the Sun Belt Conference Tournament for the first time since the 1999 season.
The Red Wolves will play the No. 2 seed, Appalachian State, Sunday at noon (CT) for the 2015 Sun Belt Conference Volleyball Tournament championship. The Mountaineers defeated third-seeded Texas State 3-0 prior to A-State's match with Little Rock.
A-State (27-1) raced out to an early 4-0 lead in set one and eventually took a 13-7 edge on a Darby Graff kill that forced Little Rock (14-14) to call a timeout. The Trojans responded with a 6-3 run to cut the A-State advantage in half at 16-13, but the Red Wolves stretched it back to six points at 23-17 on a Carlisa May kill. Little Rock got within 24-20, but a Kariana Castanon-Hill kill gave the Red Wolves set one 25-20.
The Red Wolves jumped out to an early 6-3 edge in set two with a Drew Jones service ace, but an 8-3 Trojans' run after a timeout gave Little Rock an 11-9 advantage. After an A-State timeout, the top seed battled back to earn a 17-16 lead on a Jones kill. The Trojans got within a point again at 18-17, but a 7-0 run by the Red Wolves, capped by a Mallory Warrington kill gave Arkansas State a 25-17 set victory and 2-0 edge in the match.
The third set was a close battle throughout with A-State taking a slight 9-8 edge on a Castanon-Hill kill, but Little Rock responded with a quick 3-0 run to take an 11-9 lead. The Red Wolves would take the advantage back at 16-15 on two straight Warrington aces and led by two at 21-19 on a Jessica Heuertz service ace to force a Little Rock timeout. The Trojans tied the match at 24-24, but a block by Castanon-Hill and May and attack error by Little Rock gave A-State a 26-24 victory in a set that neither team led by more than two points.
"It was a good win," A-State head volleyball coach David Rehr said. "I have so much respect for Little Rock's kids and their coaching staff and what they've done in the past. It can be emotional at times, but I think our players feed off of that and I think tomorrow afternoon's match will be like that too."
May and Jones led the team with 14 and 12 kills, respectively, while Castanon-Hill had a match-high .429 hitting percentage with seven kills. Warrington dished out 36 assists and led the team with 19 digs for her team-leading 15th double-double. Heuertz was second on the team with 16 digs filling in for Markie Schaedig, who had eight digs before exiting with an injury. Nicole Knight set a career high for digs with 10 of her own, while Castanon-Hill led the team with four blocks. Warrington and Heuertz led the team with two service aces.
"The proudest part of this match to me was Jessica stepping into Markie's spot, and then Nicole coming off the bench into Jessica's spot," added Rehr. "Both of them played admirably and we aren't lessening those two kids' contributios to the team."
Little Rock was led by Marina Avram with 10 kills, while Priscila Almeida tallied 24 digs. The Trojans hit .147 in the match compared to A-State's .248.