There is a reason why every volleyball point is magnified in a fifth set and why whichever team gains the upper hand first is usually the one that prevails with a victory.
The Wichita State volleyball team was able to stake claim to the first significant lead in the winner-take-all set against Illinois State in the semifinals of the Missouri Valley Conference tournament on Friday night, and finished off a 25-18, 18-25, 25-16, 20-25, 15-11 victory.
The Shockers, the top seed, advance to the conference finals for the third consecutive season and will play No. 3 Southern Illinois at 4:30 p.m. Saturday in Koch Arena.
“Since it’s only to 15, once somebody gets up a couple of points all of a sudden you start to feel that pressure of which way is this going to go,” WSU’s Elizabeth Field said of the final set. “As long as we managed to maintain the (lead), we knew it was on our side and we had a better and better and better chance.”
It was a sporadic performance by the Shockers, who at times showed why they won the regular-season title and then showed rust from a week-long layoff.
But when WSU absolutely had to have it, the players delivered.
A kill from Ashlyn Driskill, who struggled through a match where she finished with a negative hitting percentage, gave WSU a 10-7 lead.
When ISU challenged by scoring two straight points, setter Chelsey Feekin found Ashley Andrade and Katie Reilly for back-to-back kills. Two kills by Sam Sanders secured the win from the two-hour marathon match.
“You feel like you achieved so much because you just worked your butt off for two hours,” Feekin said. “Losing those are tough because you just worked your butt off for two hours and you get nothing out of it.”
Wichita State coach Chris Lamb was particularly pleased with Reilly, who finished with seven kills — none bigger than her final in the fifth set.
“Those were balls that she needed to put away and she did,” Lamb said.
Other than that, the usual cast was enough to push the Shockers through to the next round.
Andrade kept up her dominance, hitting .500 with a match-high 18 kills. Sanders (13 kills) and Field (11) were consistent. Feekin (53 assists) kept the pace of the offense high.
The match could almost be determined by one stat: sideouts. When WSU did it well, it won. The Shockers were 12 for 18 in the first set, a 25-18 victory, 13 for 16 in the third, a 25-16 victory, and finished 9 for 12 in the fifth.
“I thought we made the right adjustments,” Lamb said. “We didn’t always execute, but you like that you were in the right position and giving yourself a chance to make plays. We just let a few get away there.”
Lamb was referring to the second and fourth sets, where WSU allowed the game to slip away in both sets. The Shockers tied the game at 16 in the second, only to allow ISU to end on a 9-3 victory. In the fourth, facing elimination, ISU built a 10-3 lead, only to have WSU come back to claw within 19-18. But the Redbirds finished off on a 6-2 run.
To produce a solid fifth set after such a disappointing fourth was something WSU hopes to build on entering Saturday’s championship match.
This will be the seventh time WSU plays in the MVC finals. The Shockers’ lone tournament win came in 2004.
“Our ability to fight back from when we were down so many points shows a lot,” Field said. “I think if we can keep that fight and sense of urgency through (Saturday), we will have a good shot.”
Much of the pressure falls on WSU against a Southern Illinois team that had not won a MVC tournament game since 2002 until this week.
The Shockers (28-6) also have to consider their NCAA Tournament hopes, as a loss to SIU in the finals would likely leave their prospects shaky. A win will extend its streak of postseason berths to seven.
“I don’t even need to think about it like that,” Lamb said. “I’m just glad that we’re playing well.
“It comes down to one match to win this thing against a team we’re 1-1 against. They’re very capable. They’re playing great, and we like that we’ve been playing pretty good ourselves lately. We’re just excited to have the opportunity.”