It defies common volleyball logic that big hitters can come in small packages, but the Missouri volleyball team got a big gift from 5-foot-11-inch Lauren Nuckolls on Sunday at the Hearnes Center.
Nuckolls, who didn't even play in nine of Missouri's 14 conference matches, went 19-of-39 with two errors for a .436 hitting percentage. Nuckoll's career day led Missouri to a 25-15, 25-17, 25-20 sweep of Oklahoma.
After the match, the question was posed to coach Wayne Kreklow, "What exactly got into Lauren?"
"I don't know but I want to bottle it and sell it," Kreklow said.
After losing to Oklahoma 3-1 in Norman, Okla., in late September, Kreklow and assistant coach Chen Feng felt Missouri (12-12, 6-8 Big 12) failed to take advantage of a soft-hitting Oklahoma (10-14, 6-10) team. While a constant stream of roll shots allowed sophomore libero Caitlyn Vann to rack up 33 digs in Norman, Missouri failed to put the "free" rallies away.
The Tigers had no such problem in Sunday's rematch, hitting .300 on the afternoon.
Sophomore Weiwen Wang and junior Lei Wang both hit better than .400 on a day when Missouri's big hitter, sophomore Julianna Klein, managed only eight kills on 40 swings. But nothing took the spotlight away from Nuckolls' performance.
"I only get certain limited chances, so I had to come out and do it big when I got the start," Nuckolls said.
Nuckolls, who confirmed that the match against Oklahoma was a statement match for her, said that while she didn't think it would happen this way, she's always felt ready to contribute despite her limited playing time.
"It's always frustrating, especially games when we would lose, and I would feel like I could help out the team. That's the most frustrating," Nuckolls said. "But you can't do anything about that so I've always just been ready for when he needs me."
Nuckolls' playing time kept sophomore Catie Wilson off the floor, a lineup change that Kreklow said was made to try to improve Missouri's hitting percentage.
But, arguably most impressive was Missouri's blocking ability. By unofficial count, Missouri had at least four block-kills in the first set, most at the hands of juniors Lei Wang and Amanda Hantouli. Missouri outblocked Oklahoma 9-3 on the day.
Kreklow gambled by moving junior Megan Wilson across the floor, which ultimately paid off.
"Blocking is icing on the cake," Kreklow said. "We made the decision to gamble with blocking a little bit on the left side because Megan is a good big block over there to try to generate a little bit more offense."
Missouri held Oklahoma sophomore Francie Ekwerekwu, who had 13 kills in the match in Norman, to 5-of-23 hitting with four errors. Ekwerekwu was forced to deal with several low sets from freshman setter Brianne Barker.
The win, which Lei Wang said counted as a measure of revenge for Missouri's poor play in Norman in September, kept Missouri's slim tournament hopes alive, a fact that was not lost on the match's star.
"Obviously, we can't lose games right now," Nuckolls said. "We don't want to lose any game ever, but now is when we can't lose games, so in a way, we need to have any little bit of confidence. This game will help up in that aspect."