No. 24 Missouri dominates Mississippi State on back-to-back days in Starkville

The Tigers did the small things right, turning gritty sets into wins against the Bulldogs.

It wasn’t pretty, but No. 24 Missouri volleyball closed its grueling SEC campaign with a clean sweep of the Mississippi State Bulldogs.

Relying on inspired play from senior all-American Kylie Deberg and sophomore blocker Claudia Dillon, the Tigers took three straight sets from the Bulldogs on consecutive days.

With both victories, the Tigers improve their record to 15-7 ahead of the NCAA tournament next month. Coach Joshua Taylor seems confident Missouri will receive an at-large bid from the committee.

“To go through COVID-19, a split season, losing teammates to injury and still come out third in a tough conference is incredibly impressive,” Taylor said. “We’re looking forward to April 4th.”

Despite all of the abnormalities of the 2020-21 season, quality play from Deberg and Dillion remain the building blocks for a successful Tiger performance. In this week’s matches against the Bulldogs, Missouri continued to build upon those blocks.

The two sides traded points in the match’s opening volleys, with neither team asserting itself early. Errors quickly filled the stat sheet, making up 10 of the match’s first 18 rallies.

Enter Deberg.

The senior quickly punished Mississippi State for their lack of coordination, racking up several kills in the early moments of the first set. Her leadership helped Missouri stay in system when faced with tough balls.

In recent weeks, the Tigers have done well to close the door on opponents late in sets. The same couldn’t be said for Wednesday’s performance. Back-to-back attack errors from Deberg and senior hitter Dariana Hollingsworth-Santana sparked a 4-0 Mississippi State run that brought the Tiger’s lead to 20-19, a slim one-point margin.

Missouri prevailed thanks to Dillon, who often serves as the team’s ace in the hole during tough situations. The sophomore picked up three straight kills to hand Missouri a 25-21 set win.

After falling behind early in the second set, Missouri roared back to life with a 7-0 run led once again behind Deberg and company. The Tigers found key blocks and emphasized putting pressure on the Bulldog backline to cruise to a 25-16 set win.

Hollingsworth-Santana capitalized on her already notable performance with consistent service during the rally. The senior finished the day with seven kills and four digs.

Walking onto the floor with a seven-point lead in the third set after Mississippi State called their timeout, Missouri players exchanged smiles, nods and high fives. The implication was clear — they knew they had secured a critical and decisive match win.

The duo of Deberg and Dillon impressed on the stat sheets. Deberg racked up 18 kills and a hitting percentage of .400 on the day, while Dillon found eight kills of her own with just two errors.

Not long after putting the first match away, Missouri announced Thursday’s action would be moved up to an 11 a.m. start. Perhaps due to the early start time, the Tigers came out looking a little sloppy.

In the first set, the two teams established a back-and-forth pace that would continue throughout the match. It wasn’t an ideal day for any of Missouri’s hitters, but a set which they never led by more than four points still came with five kills from Deberg and four from Dillon.

The second set was mostly the same — the Tigers stayed in system, and their biggest lead only reached five points. Against a weaker team, however, they kept it simple. One of the brighter areas on the day was consistency in defense, where redshirt junior Anna D’Cruz led the team with five blocks.

While D’Cruz stood strong up front, freshman libero Emily Brown held it down in the back row. After racking up 12 digs on Wednesday, she picked up 14 to go along with a handful of assists and an ace. As a team, Missouri held Mississippi State to just .182 hitting on Thursday.

After a successful coach’s challenge and a Hollingsworth-Santana ace, Missouri took the second set 25-20. As Bulldogs Gabby Waden and Callie Minshew neared their combined total of 22 kills on the day, Deberg’s 14 and Dillon’s 10 still outmatched the pair.

Deberg and sophomore Anna Dixon started off the third set with a couple of early kills. However, a rough finish for Dixon lowered her hitting percentage to just .154 with one block. Redshirt junior Andrea Fuentes filled in the gap, catching the Bulldogs off guard with a couple of key dumps on the way to a 25-18 third-set victory. As always, the 2019 All-SEC setter also dominated the assist column with 31.

They never led by more than seven points, but the Tigers still took down the Bulldogs in straight sets. Deberg and Dillon, on relative off days, kept up the production that coach Taylor needed from them to win.

Missouri finished the regular season with two encouraging outings, and its performance in the series is just a taste of the potential the team holds.

“They proved their toughness and for that I am proud,” Taylor said.

Edited by Jack Soble | jsoble@themaneater.com

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