Nov. 23, 2008
MEMPHIS, Tenn. - Chants of "Roll Wave Roll" rained down from the stands behind the Green Wave's bench. Cheers from the reserves encouraged the team to push for points down the stretch. The coaches stood stoically as the final points accumulated on the scoreboard.
And with a thunderous kill by senior right-side hitter Bridget Wells, the Tulane University volleyball team won the 2008 Conference USA Tournament Championship with a hard-fought, 3-2 victory over league rival UAB Sunday afternoon at the Elma Roane Fieldhouse.
After falling to UAB in the first set, 25-20, Tulane was on the cusp of the championship after taking the next two stanzas 25-19 and 25-9. The Blazers stormed back in set No. 4 with a 25-20 victory to send the match to a fifth and deciding set. The Green Wave took an 8-4 advantage at the bench swap, and outscored the Blazers 7-2 the rest of the way to earn the league's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history.
"There really are not words to describe how I feel, how my assistants feel or how my players feel right now, because this has been a long time coming," Tulane head volleyball coach Liz Kritza said. "This is the eventual outcome of what we committed to do four years ago. We committed to going into the gym every single day and giving everything we had, and this is the eventual outcome. We knew this was going to happen. The question was when it was going to happen.
"I could not be happier for a group of people who are so different in so many different ways to come together, focus on a common goal and do everything in their powers to achieve it. Forget about them being college athletes. This group has seen and had to do more things than most people will ever do in their lives. To have this be the outcome after a four-year journey - especially for the seniors - is a very fitting ending and a really good example of how strong the human spirit is."
The victory avenged the team's only regular-season C-USA loss and marked the first time in the last three seasons that Tulane defeated the Blazers in the C-USA Championship. With the win, Tulane improves to 27-5 on the year and runs its winning streak to a school-record 16 straight. UAB, meanwhile, falls to 25-6.
Senior outside hitter Sara Radosevic was named C-USA Championship MVP after posting a match-best 18 kills to go along with 15 digs, three block assists and a trio of service aces. Two of her aces came in the final four points to push the lead to 13-6, senior middle blocker Jen Linder and freshman outside hitter Visnja Djurdjevic combined for a block to set up match point, and Wells put an exclamation point on the season to date with a kill down the line.
"I just had a feeling that I was going to ace it," Radosevic said of her serves late in the fifth set. "In all honesty, I had a feeling about it. Coach Sinisa (Momic) came over to me and said, `Now, we need your serve. Now, you're going to toss it right. We need your serve now. Don't miss it.' I just had a feeling even before I tossed it that I was going to ace it. I have to finish this for my team.
"It was completely a 100 percent team effort. There is absolutely no one person who did this. Whenever we play for each other, this is what happens."
Radosevic was one of four Tulane players to post double-digit kill totals in the match as Djurdjevic, Wells and junior right-side hitter Ksenija Vlaskovic tallied 15 apiece. Radosevic and Djurdjevic posted double-doubles with 15 and 13 digs, respectively, as did junior setter Rachel Lindelow, who had a team-best 30 assists to go with 11 digs. Junior libero Jenn Miller tied for team-high dig honors with 16 of her own and chipped in with a service ace.
The Green Wave out-hit the Blazers .317 (68-17-161) to .219 (52-20-146) for the match. UAB hit a combined .429 (32-5-63) in the first and fourth sets, but the Tulane defense limited the Blazers to an overall .060 clip (20-15-83) in the other three stanzas, including a negative .042 mark in the third set.
"UAB has the firepower to be able to score at the same pace we do point for point," Kritza said. "Our secret to success had to be to take them out of system and had to slow their offense down. We had to stop them from scoring at such a high clip because we needed our offense to be an advantage for us.
"We had to serve tougher, focus on our blocking, make sure that we play much more aggressively on defense, covering more of the court and making sure some of those balls came up, because that was our advantage. We could not lose that advantage because if we did, it would have been so hard to play UAB and come out on top."
Tulane jumped out to an early 7-4 lead in the opening set but UAB used a 12-4 rally to take a 16-11 lead it would not relinquish. The Green Wave chipped away at the deficit and made it a one-point ballgame at 20-19. A pair of Tulane errors, however, halted the comeback and the Blazers took set one by five.
The second set was a back-and-forth struggle as the two teams traded the first 20 points. With the score tied at 10-all, Tulane created some breathing room with a 3-0 rally and the lead slowly swelled the rest of the way. The Green Wave led by as many as seven at 24-17 and went to tie the match at one set apiece.
There would be no drama in the third set as Tulane scored the first three points, used a 3-0 run three serves later to claim a 6-3 advantage and just gained momentum as the contest moved along. The lead swelled throughout courtesy of a pair of 6-0 runs by the Green Wave and Tulane took the set by 16.
The momentum of the big win did not last long as the Blazers came out in the fourth set and staked claim to a 9-4 lead. Tulane cut the lead to a pair at 10-8, but that was as close as the Green Wave would get the rest of the way. UAB led by as many as seven at 17-10 and withstood several Tulane rallies to send it to a final set.
"We have seen this UAB team do exactly what they did today in set four," Kritza said. "At their place, we had a convincing win to take the fourth set and they came out on fire in the fifth set. We had to come out and be ready to answer. (UAB) is a team that is well coached, they have good players who play at a high level and they simply do not go away. They are very tough-minded and that is why they find success.
"This is a very significant win for us because it is against UAB. I have the utmost respect for head coach Kerry Messersmith and the program she has built. This match today helps both of us prepare to go on to the NCAA Tournament and represent Conference USA the way that we should."
Ivana Bozic led UAB with 17 kills while Lilly Domingues, Andra Lalic and Savannah Pegg posted eight each. Nevana Stefanov led all players with 46 assists and Aleksandra Vujovic posted a match-best 21 digs.
Tulane will learn of its postseason destination on Sunday, Nov. 30, when the NCAA Selection Committee announces the NCAA Volleyball Tournament field at 9 p.m. on ESPNU.