AUGUSTA, Ga. – The GRU Augusta volleyball team dropped a five-set match in the first round of the Peach Belt Conference tournament to the Lander Bearcats on Tuesday night in Christenberry Fieldhouse. GRU was the third seed and the visiting Bearcats were the sixth seed.
A crowd that grew as the match progressed, on the edge of its collective seat. Five sets of high-quality, fast-paced volleyball. 24 collective tie scores and 13 lead changes across five sets. A semifinal Peach Belt Conference playoff berth on the line. It had all the makings of an instant classic, but one the GRU Augusta Jaguars couldn't pull out after falling behind 7-3 in the decisive fifth set, a deficit they couldn't recover from to fall to visiting Lander.
The Jaguars (26-8) forced the fifth set after a 23-23 tie in the fourth frame. After a long rally, Kailla Baptiste hammered home a kill in the heart of the defense, and on set point Lander couldn't stay on track to set the crowd in an excited uproar.
In the fifth set, Sadie Thurston fooled the Bearcats with an attack to take the first point, but at 3-3 - Lander strung three-consecutive kills together with a GRU error to pull away.
The match had it all through the first four sets.
The Bearcats (22-9) kept things tight in an opening frame that saw eight tie scores and five lead changes, trailing by two at 16-14 before rattling off eight unanswered points. They outhit the Jags .231-.068 as GRU struggled to maintain the offensive rhythm found earlier in the set.
But the tide turned in set two. Both squads fired on all cylinders defensively, forcing long rallies that had the record crowd on the edge of its collective seat. Trailing 14-12, GRU's Kailla Baptiste blasted a kill to the back corner, then back-to-back- blocks by Sadie Thurston and Katie Beresford gave the Jags the lead before one more put GRU up 17-16 – a lead they wouldn't relinquish in taking it 25-21.
The Jaguars posted a 17-15 lead in set three off a Kristen Koch kill on the left line and a Lander attack error, but Lander fired back with a 6-0 run aided by three GRU Augusta attack errors to take the set 25-18 and put the Jags in a hole.
Neither team hit particularly well, as both defenses operated as a swirling mass of diving bodies to keep balls alive that normally would've hit. Lander (.147 hit percentage) was led by Kendall Korte's 16 kills, while GRU Augusta was paced by Baptiste's 15 and Maggie Darling's 13 kill, 15-dig effort.
GRU (26-8) now awaits the results of conference tournaments and the final set of NCAA Regional rankings to see if they have earned a spot in the NCAA Tournament. The Jaguars were ranked No. 4 in the latest edition of the poll after winning their school-record 26th match over the weekend. The three conference champions from the Peach Belt, Conference Carolinas, and Southern Athletic Conference earn automatic bids, while the remaining five at-large spots are filled by the highest-remaining ranked teams in the NCAA Regional poll.
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