LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Michigan State defeated host Kentucky 3-1 (25-22, 21-25, 25-22, 25-20) on Sunday afternoon. MSU advances to the NCAA round of 16, which will be held at Kentucky’s Memorial Coliseum on Dec. 13-14. The Spartans will play Penn State, while Stanford and Minnesota will also compete in Lexington. Kentucky ends its season with a 22-9 overall record, and with its loss, eliminates all SEC teams from the NCAA tournament.
MSU’s victory gives the Big Ten Conference seven teams in the round of 16, the most of any conference (the Pac-12 has three). The Big Ten had sent a conference-best six teams into the round of 16 in each of the past two seasons.
MSU is in the NCAA tournament for the third consecutive season and makes its second consecutive regional semifinal appearance. Overall, this will be MSU‘s sixth trip to the round of 16 in program history and third in the tenure of MSU mentor Cathy George.
Four Spartans finished with double-digit kills. Lauren Wicinski paced the effort with a double-double, (16 kills, 17 digs, and four blocks) while Allyssah Fitterer had 15 kills, hit .433, and had three blocks; senior Alexis Mathews had 12 kills, four blocks and hit .450, and Chloe Reinig had 10 kills. Kori Moster had 22 digs to lead the defensive effort, while Halle Peterson had a double-double with 25 assists and 11 digs.
Mathews and Reinig accounted for MSU’s first five points, as the Spartans took a 5-2 lead early in the set. Kentucky kept chipping away and tied the set at 11, then took its first lead at 12-11 on back-to-back blocks by Morgan. With the set tied at 12, MSU used a three-point run to push its lead back to three (15-12), as Fitterer had a block (with Mathews) and a kill; Kentucky called its first timeout of the set to regroup. Kentucky battled back to take four of the next five points to tie it at 16, then went ahead on a Spartan error that sailed long. MSU countered with a 7-3 run – which included three kills from Kuipers - that turned a one-point deficit into a 23-20 advantage, capped by a Galloway ace, that forced UK into a timeout. Out of the break, the home team rallied for back-to-back points – a kill by Billings and an ace by Jackie Napper – that cut MSU’s lead to a single point. Wicinski and Mathews blocked Billings at the right pin for the final two points of the set, giving MSU a 25-22 win in the opening frame. Mathews had five kills and four blocks to pace MSU in the set, while Reinig had four kills and Wicinski had five digs, two blocks and two kills.
The Spartans jumped ahead by a 6-2 in the second set, using a Fitterer kill and back-to-back blocks by Wicinski (solo) and Fitterer and Kuipers. The home team rallied to take seven of the next nine points to pull ahead 9-8 – capped by kills from Morgan Bergeren and Kayla Tronick. MSU tied it at 10 on kills by Reinig and Kelsay, then pulled ahead 13-11 once the Wildcats committed three consecutive errors. Trailing 15-12, UK then strung together seven consecutive points (the longest run for either team to that point in the match), benefitting from three MSU errors to take a 19-15 lead. MSU cut the lead to two on a Wildcat service error and Fitterer kill, but the Spartans committed two errors around an Anni Thomason kill to see UK regain a four-point advantage 23-19. Bergeren recorded an ace to give her team set point, but MSU came back with a Reinig kill, and Billings committed an error to allow MSU back within three points. A Lauren O’Conner kill sealed the set for the Wildcats, as Bergren and Billings each contributed three kills, and Billings had six digs. For MSU, Fitterer and Wicinski each had three kills in the set, while WIcinski also contributed a pair of solo blocks.
With a 5-5 tie in the third set, Kentucky scored eight of the next 11 points to take a 13-5 lead. Fitterer scored two of her team’s three points on kills, while the UK effort was aided by four MSU errors in that sequence. The Spartan battled back to score seven of the next nine, using three kills each from Wicinski and Fitterer, to knot the third set at 16-16. MSU wasn’t finished -- trailing 19-18, it used a 4-0 run (capped with two Wicinski kills) to go up three 22-19. The teams traded errors, and a left-side swing by Shelby Workman brought the ‘Cats within two, 23-21. MSU got set point with a Mathews kill, but Billings kept UK alive with a kill at the right pin. Fitterer iced it for MSU, her 12th kill of the night, giving MSU the third-set win. She had seven of MSU’s 19 kills in the set in 10 swings, while Wicinski had five kills and eight digs.
MSU started the fourth set with a 6-1 advantage, but most of that lead came off of Kentucky errors. UK battled back to pull within two at 10-8, but found difficulty in stopping Wicinski and Fitterer, who had six and three kills in the set, respectively. Kentucky wouldn’t get closer than two points during the balance of the match. A Billings kill cut MSU’s lead to 19-17, but Wicinski killed the ensuing play, and a service error by Billings pushed MSU back into a four-point advantage at 21-17. The Spartans kept their foot on the gas, with kills by Mathews, Jazmine White, Taylor Galloway, and Wicinski to ice the victory.
MSU is set to face off against Big Ten rival Penn State at 5 p.m. Friday in the round of 16 at Memorial Coliseum.