LOUISVILLE, Ky. – – The Ball State women’s volleyball team saw its magical season come to an end Saturday evening with a 3-0 (29-27. 25-11, 25-19) loss at top-seeded Louisville in the second round of the NCAA Division I Women’s Volleyball Championship.
However, the BSU Cardinals (30-4) did not make it easy for the top ranked UofL Cardinals (30-0), trading body blows in a thrilling opening set which saw the hosts escape with a 29-27 victory.
“I don’t think I learned anything new about our team,” head coach Kelli Miller Phillips said when asked about playing the nation’s top team. “I think it just reinforced what I do know about this team; that we don’t back down from any challenge. We are excited for opportunities, and I did not think that we played at all tentative, we were ourselves and we play the best version that we could versus a really good number one seeded Louisville team.”
Louisville had three early set-points, pulling ahead 24-21, but Ball State would not go down quietly, starting with a block from junior middle Marie Plitt and freshman setter Megan Wielonski. That pressure forced an attack error on the next rally, while Plitt followed with a kill after a UofL timeout to tie the score at 24.
Louisville scored the next point, for its fourth set point, but graduate student outside attacker Jaclyn Bulmahn found the L&N Arena floor on the next play to even the score. Then, an UofL attack error gave BSU a chance to close out the set ahead 26-25.
BSU could not capitalize on the opportunity, or on another at 27-26, and Louisville went on to win the set at 29-27.
“I think our first set speaks to the competitiveness of our group,” Phillips said. “It doesn’t matter who’s on the other side of the court, we belong because we’ve earned the right to be in this position. We feel confident in who we are. It takes a lot of people, a lot of time, and a lot of hard work to be in the position that we’re in. We were going to enjoy it and we did that. And certainly, we’d like a different outcome, but with all things considered, we competed. That’s the type of people we have in this program; ultimate competitors not afraid of whatever challenge is going to be ahead.”
Unfortunately, Ball State could not quite capture the opening-set magic the rest of the night as Louisville won the next two frames to snap BSU’s winning streak at a program-record tying 20 matches.
Despite the season-ending loss, Ball State finished the year with 30 wins for just the fourth time in program history and set a program record with a .882 (30-4) winning percentage. It was a solid year for the Cardinals, who look to return all but three players from this season’s squad.
“We’re returning a large group and they are still in a position where we’re just not satisfied with being here,” Phillips added. “We want to continue to get better, but they have a great perspective and the ability to soak in a moment and enjoy it. They understand we want to get better, we want more, and we’ll continue to fight for more. Our goals will continue to be high, and we will continue to push the envelope and raise our goals every single year.”
One night after smashing a career-high 20 kills in a five-set win over Michigan, BSU’s second over a Big Ten opponent this season, Plitt once again led the offense with seven kills. She also tallied a team-best three total blocks and a pair of digs.
While Louisville was able to limit the Ball State attack to a .057 (29-23-105) attack percentage in the match, it did not stop BSU from finishing the season with a program-record .265 attack percentage.
Leading the way was sophomore middle Lauren Gilliland who finished the season pacing the Mid-American Conference with a .364 attack percentage. Gilliland added six kills in Saturday’s match versus UofL. Pitt was not far behind, ranking second in the MAC with a .360 rate of success on the year.
Rounding out Ball State’s top contributors on offense versus Louisville were junior opposite Natalie Mitchem with six kills, Bulmahn with four and sophomore outside Cait Snyder going a perfect 3-for-3.
On the defensive end, Ball State turned in another solid effort by limiting the nation’s fourth-ranked offense to a .240 (39-16-96) rate of success. UofL entered the tournament with a .303 attack percentage.
Junior libero Maggie Huber led the way with 10 digs, while junior outside Natalie Risi was second on the squad with eight to go along with her two kills.
Wielonski was right behind with seven digs, including six in the opening set which saw BSU force 12 UofL attack errors and hold the hosts to a .128 (18-12-47) hitting mark.
Wielonski also dished out 26 assists and added three more service aces to her season total, finishing the year with 58. The total ties as the sixth-best single season mark in program history.
Despite the strong defensive effort, Aiko Jones led the top-ranked Cardinals with 10 kills, while Anna DeBeer was right behind with nine. UofL libero Elena Scott added a match-high 15 digs.
The Ball State women’s volleyball team ends the season as the MAC regular season and tournament champions and earned just the third NCAA tournament victory in program history Friday versus Michigan.