CONWAY, Ark. – The No. 3 Sam Houston State Bearkats gave No. 1 Texas A&M-Corpus Christi all it could handle, could not put away the Islanders in falling ,3-1, in the title match (22-25, 25-23, 26-24, 25-22) on Sunday afternoon at the Farris Center.
The Bearkats (18-14) came into the championship match with momentum after wins over No. 6 Northwestern State and No. 2 Stephen F. Austin, not to mention as the only Southland team to take the undefeated Islanders to five sets this regular season – a winning stretch that saw A&M-Corpus Christi drop only seven total sets in conference play.
Through four sets, the title match saw an incredible 42 ties and 20 lead changes, where the Bearkats never allowed the Islanders to get comfortable with their narrow leads.
Brooke White and Taylor Cunningham were each named to the all-tournament team at the conclusion of the event as the Kats closed out the season with an 18-14 mark, winning nine of its last 12 matches.
The first set was remarkably tight, with 13 ties and five lead changes before all was said and done. After trading points through the opening stages, a 3-1 Islander run gave them a four-point lead at 11-7. Down the stretch, the Kats would close out set one on a 5-1 run to take a 25-20 victory and do something that no conference team had managed to pull off all season – lead the Islanders in sets during a match. Sam Houston outhit A&M-Corpus Christi .289 to .200 in the first set and held strong at the net with five total team blocks (eight block assists, one solo). Both sides tallied 20 digs.
Set two was more of the same back-and-forth action, with a slight 15-13 Islanders lead at the media timeout. The Bearkats would then pull back within one but another 3-1 run from the Islanders forced another quick timeout from head coach Brenda Gray with Sam Houston State down 16-19. Again, the Bearkats would not go away, forcing an Islander timeout with a 3-0 run to draw level at 19-19. A 3-2 run would put Sam Houston up 22-21, but A&M-Corpus Christi would close the set on a 4-1 run of their own to take a narrow 25-23 victory and tie the match at 1-1 heading into intermission.
The Islander offense stepped up in the second set, hitting .375 with 16 kills, led by tournament MVP Brittany Gilpin with six. Junior Jordyn Vaughn led the way for the Bearkats with five kills, pacing a .239 team hitting percentage. The slight defensive advantage proved the difference maker as the Islanders led in block assists (4 to 2) and digs (20 to 17).
The No. 1 seed found itself in an early hole in set three, with the Bearkats going on an 8-3 run to open the scoring. The Islanders came right back with a 5-0 run to tie the set at 8-8 and force a Sam Houston State timeout. After another tight middle stretch, a 4-1 Islander run put them in position to close out the set with a 24-20 scoreline. Four straight Bearkat points denied the Islanders the set point until back-to-back kills from sophomore Morgan Williams and Gilpin sealed the vital 26-24 set three victory for A&M-Corpus Christi.
Sam Houston State remained close throughout the set but their hitting percentage continued to dip, dropping to .123 in the third set. The Islanders tallied 26 digs to stifle the Bearkat offense and back up an Islander front line hitting .214, again led by Gilpin with six kills.
After falling behind early in set four, Sam Houston State would go on a 5-2 run after the media timeout to take the lead at 18-17. However, this was the last lead they would hold as the Islanders went on the go-ahead 5-0 run put the Bearkats in a 22-18 hole in the decisive set. A 4-2 run would give A&M-Corpus Christi a scare, putting the score at 24-22, but Gilpin finally put down the decisive kill – her career-high 23rd of the match – to seal the victory and championship for the Islanders, 3-1.
PLAYERS OF THE MATCH
The Bearkats had three players with double-digit kills: Junior Brooke White (17), sophomore Taylor Cunningham (14) and junior Jordyn Vaughn (11), leading a .208 team hitting percentage. Senior Michelle Griffith tallied 49 assists while fellow seniors Claire Kilpatrick and Breanna Homer had 21 and 18 digs apiece.
Sam Houston won the first set behind .289 hitting and five blocks, but were outblocked 8-3 the remainder of the way. In a match that saw the stats relatively even, the Kats got away 13 more swings but were outdug 82-71 with three more attack errors.
2016 Southland Volleyball All-Tournament Team
Brittany Gilpin, A&M-Corpus Christi – Tournament MVP
Kristyn Nicholson, A&M-Corpus Christi
Morgan Carlson, A&M-Corpus Christi
Taylor Cunningham, Sam Houston State
Brooke White, Sam Houston State
Samantha Anderson, Central Arkansas
KK Payne, Stephen F. Austin