After cruising through its first two sets against Tennessee, the Michigan volleyball team ran to its locker room like children running home for dinner.
But when Michigan returned to play, there was a stronger, much different opponent waiting.
The Wolverines managed to walk away victorious, overcoming the resurgent Volunteers to hang on to their two-set lead and win a close five-set match, 25-22, 25-17, 22-25, 19-25, 15-10 in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament in Lousiville, Ky. With the win, Michigan advances to the second round to play No. 9 Louisville on Friday.
Thanks to a fast start in the fifth set, the Wolverines (24-11) were able to escape an early exit following a strong regular season.
“I thought we did a good job of just letting those first four sets go, good and bad, and just playing that fifth set really well,” said Michigan coach Mark Rosen. “I’m very proud of how they responded and looking forward to moving on.”
Michigan leaned heavily on its leading hitters — junior outside hitters Lexi Erwin and Molly Toon — to take control. The two accounted for more than half of Michigan’s points. Erwin finished with a game-high 26 kills while Toon added 20.
The Wolverines came out strong early, catching the Volunteers on their heels. Down 2-4 in the first set, Michigan went on a 4-0 to secure a lead. Tennessee had no answer to the Wolverines’ momentum in the beginning of the game, unable to get a sideout when needed.
For the rest of the set, Tennessee could only answer with one point to every two points for Michgain, failing to stop the Wolverines’ momentum.
Strong hitting and a nearly errorless second set allowed Michigan to quickly head into the locker room. The Wolverines raced out to a 10-3 run behind the strong play of junior middle blocker Jennifer Cross. The Volunteers never figured out how to stop a team that hit at will, as Michigan finished with a .300 attack percentage and only one error.
“Jen is a student of the game and loves to think through the game,” Rosen said. “There were lots of times I could see her communicating with other players and telling them what they’re going to do and setting our team up to defend.”
But Tennessee — 8-3 in five-set games this season — was accustomed to taking its time to figure out opponents.
The Volunteers had over-committed to one hitter by gambling on sophomore setter Lexi Dannemiller’s decision to continue feeding Erwin and Toon. But Tennessee switched its scheme in the following sets, running two setters and a stronger offense.
Michigan’s hot hitting cooled off following the break, ending the set with a .108 attack percentage. Ahead 13-11, Tennessee need only a 3-0 run to provide the momentum to pull away.
The Volunteers mirrored the Wolverines’ strong second set with one of their own in the fourth, taking advantage of a slew of serving errors — Michigan finished with nine serving errors on the night. Tennessee jumped out to a 10-4 lead, making several short runs to force the fifth set.
“Even though Tennessee was making a good run at us, they were always coming from behind,” Rosen said. “I think that still allows to be a little bit more controlled and more composed and know that we had the ability to play at that level.”
Added Erwin: “I think that it was the first-game jitters, so not everything was going as smooth as it has gone all season. I think we kind of just forgot the first four games and started new.”
Needing a sprint in the fifth set, the Wolverines managed a 6-3 on two service aces from Dannemiller. The Volunteers called a timeout hoping to respond, but Michigan extended its lead to 10-5, forcing yet another timeout. Ultimately, using two kills from Dannemiller, the Wolverines closed the game on a kill from Toon.
Dannemiller finished with 57 assists, and 16 digs as part of her solid night. Freshman libero Tiffany Morlaes led the team in digs with 19, adding to her strong freshman campaign.
“We had to learn as the match went on,” Rosen said. “I think these guys, especially in the first two sets, I could see them making a lot of adjustments, just from what they’re watching. It’s something this team takes a lot of pride on, they’re good smart volleyball players, they’re not just playing the system.”