COLLEGE STATION, Texas – Texas A&M won its fifth consecutive match and also notched its 10th victory over the last 11 matches as the Aggies defeated Tennessee, 26-24, 25-20, 25-15, Sunday afternoon at Reed Arena.
Texas A&M senior middle blocker Jazzmin Babers broke the all-time school record for career block assists during the match, finishing with seven block assists—and a match-high nine total blocks—to give her 458 block assists for her career, breaking the previous record of 456 set by Cindy Lothspeich in 1997. With Babers leading the effort, the Aggies tallied 28 block assists as a team to set a school record for block assists in an SEC three-set match.
Sophomore middle blocker Kaitlyn Blake pitched in seven block assists, and outside hitter Kiara McGee added a personal season-high five block assists while also tying freshman outside hitter Hollann Hans for the team lead in kills with nine. Libero Amy Nettles and setter Stephanie Aiple tied for match-high honors with 10 digs apiece, and Aiple also had 24 assists to complete her third double-double over the last four matches and her team-leading fourth-double double of the season.
Texas A&M, which won its sixth straight match in the all-time series against Tennessee, improved to 16-7 overall and 10-2 in SEC matches. The Vols fell to 15-10, including 5-7 in conference play.
The opening set was a rollercoaster ride of ups and downs by both teams. The Aggies jumped out to an early 9-3 advantage behind the strong serving of defensive specialist Amy Houser. Texas A&M kept its six-point cushion at 14-8 before the Volunteers began to rally with freshman outside hitter Tessa Grubbs leading the charge. Grubbs, who finished the set with seven total kills, had two kills and a solo block during a 4-0 Tennessee run that put the Vols within 14-12, forcing Texas A&M head coach Laurie Corbelli to call a timeout. Aggie opposite hitter Ashlie Reasor got a kill on the first play after the timeout, and Babers teamed with Aiple for a block to put the Aggies up, 16-12.
A&M later held an 18-15 advantage when Tennessee reeled off six unanswered points to take its first lead and go up 21-18. The Vols, who outhit A&M.175 to .108 but committed five service errors in the frame, extended their lead to 23-19 before A&M raced back. Hans got a kill that marked the start of a 5-0 run, with McGee getting a kill off the Tennessee block to put the Aggies at set point, 24-23. Tennessee tied the set for the fifth time with a kill before McGee closed out the stanza with back-to-back kills.
Hans jumped started the Aggies to a 7-0 lead in the second set, starting off the frame with three consecutive aces. Tennessee, which held the Aggies to a .000 hitting percentage, got within 8-6, but an untimely service error ended the run and marked the start of a 6-0 rally by A&M that gave the Aggies their largest lead at 14-6. The Vols later got within 20-16, but their six service errors in the set prevented them from making a viable comeback. The teams traded points for the remainder of the set, with Tennessee fittingly committing a service error to end the set.
After hitting only .064 through the first two sets, the Aggies hit .400 in the final stanza, securing a lead throughout the third set to complete the sweep. Babers notched the record-breaking block assist at 3-0, as she teamed with Reasor to snuff Kendra Turner’s attack.
Hans later put down one of her five kills in the set to put A&M ahead, 13-5. Tennessee twice managed to get within four points, the last coming at 19-15 before a kill by Aiple sent Nettles to the service line, where she served out the set, including an ace to clinch the match.
The Aggies got the win despite hitting a season-low .159. Defensively, A&M finished with 16 total blocks, a season high for a three-set match.
Grubbs finished with a match-high 14 kills to help Tennessee to a 36-31 lead in kills, but the Vols were held to a .101 hitting percentage as a team and committed 13 service errors, the most by an A&M opponent this season and more than twice that of any other SEC opponent has committed against the Aggies this year.
Texas A&M wraps up its four-match homestand next weekend, playing host to Mississippi State on Friday at 5 p.m. and Georgia on Sunday at 1 p.m. at Reed Arena.
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Texas A&M postmatch quotes:
TEXAS A&M HEAD COACH LAURIE CORBELLI
On the first game being so close …
“You know, I just think getting a feel for each other, getting a rhythm, I just think for some reason we need more reps with our offensive rhythm, because we’re one of the top attacking teams in the conference and we were hitting 10 percent and zero and that’s just not really our offense so there’s a couple of things. Our first touch, we know our passing is getting better and better. We’ve had a little drop off we thought against the Alabama team, and we’ve been working really hard and holding our first-touch players, the players that play defense and pass and take a first ball, making them more accountable for a ball up at the target more often. Not every time; we know it won’t be perfect every time, but we just have to have that. It’s a big part of our game, and once we started to get our rhythm in the third set with 14 kills, four errors, that’s more like what we do. A lot of it is we’re going to have to get with the players and see what do they sense, where’s the rhythm problem? But overall, to be able to come out of set one and know that we can fight back and it was a great rotation for us, sometimes it’s the matchup that you’re in, who’s on who, that works great, and I’m just really proud of the fact that we were down quite a bit and fought back again. I think it’s nice for the team to know that they can do that, more than once.”
On Tennessee's serving woes…
“I think they lead the conference in service errors because they just know they really want to get teams out of system. I know they’re being told ‘go hard, go aggressive’ and that’s nice. They had some really tough serves, some of the toughest serves we’ve seen this year. It’s just they’re still finding that fine line between keeping them in and getting an ace. Anyways, they’re a very aggressive serving team. It’s just you risk missing too many.”
On preparing for future SEC matches…
“I think we’re continuing to improve. We are identifying things that need to change, need to be fixed so to speak, and players respond quickly. That’s the beauty of having a lot of upperclassmen. Most of the time, they are able to make the change they don’t realize they need to make, and that’s our job as coaches to find those things. I think the key is going to be really mentally staying engaged and keeping a narrow focus on what we have to do each day.”
On keeping an eye on how the higher ranked SEC teams are doing...
“I think we like to see how everybody is doing. We know who’s playing and the top teams that are going against each other. One is going to have to get a loss. We definitely are aware, but I think we still try to keep the focus on us, (that’s) the key thing. Attacking and working on having an attack mindset, just going after it.”
TEXAS A&M SENIOR MIDDLE BLOCKER JAZZMIN BABERS
On prepping for Tennessee…
“We’ve been practicing on blocking, and the scout report does help with number 17, [Tessa Grubbs]. We focused a lot on trying to get our block solid on her. She’s a really great player.”
On if she knew breaking a record was coming…
“No, Stephanie [Aiple] said ‘congrats!’ on the court. I was like, ‘congrats on what?’ I had no idea what she was talking about. Then we had a timeout quickly after that, and someone told me that I broke some record.”
On reason for suspenseful games...
“We want the fans to keep coming. Yeah, it makes it interesting. [laughs]”
TEXAS A&M JUNIOR SETTER STEPHANIE AIPLE
On her double-double …
“A lot of teams lately have been attacking our right back. I don’t think that means that I’m a good a digger at all. I just think a lot of team’s are attacking our right side line, so me and [Victoria Arenas] usually come out as one of the top dig leaders.”
On preparing for future SEC games…
“We try to take each day as its own and not focus too much on the future. I think our team is definitely confident right now. We’re having really tough and awesome practices, working hard to get better for our next opponent. I’m excited to finish out the SEC.”