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ND Volleyball: Irish lose to St. John’s, beat UConn in five sets

Sam Werner | Monday, November 17, 2008

Two days after a close five-set loss to Big East leader St. John’s, the Irish pulled off a nail-biting win of their own, downing Connecticut 3-2.

Friday night against the Red Storm (21-8, 12-2 Big East), the Irish (14-13, 9-5) received a balanced offensive effort in the 25-17, 18-25, 16-25, 25-19, 16-14 defeat, with four players tallying more than 10 kills. Junior outside hitter Christina Kaelin paced the Irish with 14 kills, and senior middle blocker Justine Stremick led the team with a .455 hitting percentage.

After St. John’s won the first set, courtesy of a 10-0 run at one point, the Irish rebounded in the second set with a 9-0 run of their own. Notre Dame held the Red Storm to .029 average in second set, and a .030 hitting percentage in the third.

The Irish took advantage of a strong defensive showing, tallying a season-high 19 blocks on the night. Stremick led Notre Dame with 10 stuffs.

The fourth set was tied 16-16 before St. John’s pulled away to force a fifth game.

In the fifth, the Irish rallied from behind to force a 14-14 tie, but two kills by St. John’s senior outside hitter Valeria Kovaleva swung the match in favor of the Red Storm.

Kovaleva also had seven aces in the match to pace the Red Storm, who had nine as a team.

The Irish were determined to rebound Sunday afternoon against the Huskies (21-8, 10-4), who came in one spot ahead of Notre Dame in the Big East standings. Notre Dame won the match 26-28, 25-21, 20-25, 25-23, 15-11.

Stremick and freshman Kristen Dealy led the way over Connecticut, with the duo posting 17 and 16 kills, respectively.

After Connecticut claimed a back-and-forth first game, the Irish responded with a strong defensive showing the second game, posting five team blocks.

“Just that heart and that desire to not let anything hit the floor is really important,” Notre Dame coach Debbie Brown said.

Dealy led the Irish offensively in the first two games, notching 11 kills for a .500 hitting percentage.

“After game two in the locker room, [Kristen] was really the only positive offensive weapon that we had,” Brown said. “We really needed to find a way to get some other people involved.”

Stremick certainly stepped up to the call. The Langdon, N.D. native posted 12 kills in the third, fourth, and fifth sets.

The Irish struggled offensively in the third set, posting a paltry .026 hitting percentage, but rebounded to edge the Huskies in the fourth game. With the score tied 21-21, Stremick shouldered the load and posted two kills and two blocks to force a deciding set.

“I think Justine absolutely picked it up in the fourth game, and was the difference in the fourth game,” Brown said. “And then we carried that momentum into the fifth game, so that was really good to see.”

In the fifth, the Huskies jumped out to a 9-5 lead when Brown called her final timeout of the game. Brown said she doesn’t remember exactly what she told the team during that break.

“We were just trying to stay calm,” she said. “It was a struggle for us today. We were not playing real well and I just tried to stay positive with them and encourage them and just reminded them that there was nothing Connecticut was doing that was taking us by surprise. It was just a matter of us picking up the execution a little bit.”

The Irish bolted out of the timeout and, led by two Stremick kills, claimed 10 of the next 12 points to take the match.

“We just had this ‘Do not let anything hit the ground’ mentality,” Stremick said. “We were scrapping. It wasn’t pretty. That’s what separates a good team from a great team. If you’re in a tight crunch, you need to find a way to win. It doesn’t matter how pretty it is.”

After the match, Brown said she was happy with the win, even though her team didn’t play up to potential.

“To win a match and hit 13 percent, that’s some ugly volleyball,” she said.

The win sets up a rematch with the Huskies next weekend in the first round of the Big East tournament in Pittsburgh. Brown said as long as the offense played as well as it could, she was confident the team could beat Connecticut again.

“I think we can obviously make some adjustments with our blocking and defense a little bit,” she said. “But I think more than that was our offense, and we just weren’t really efficient.”

Stremick said the team expects nothing less than a conference tournament title next weekend.

“Every game that we’ve lost, we’ve been competitive, and I’d say the teams we did lose to in the Big East, we didn’t have our best matches,” Stremick said. “I think if we bring our ‘A’ game we can compete against anyone. Obviously there are some good teams out there and there are going to be some good matches, but I’m excited for it.”

Brown echoed Stremick’s sentiments, and said the win was big to give the team momentum going into the conference tournament.

“I think it’s huge, just going into the Big East tournament,” Brown said. “We felt good about how we played on Friday, obviously not happy with the loss, but we know that we played really hard and to come back and not play as well but find a way to win is important. We have momentum going into the Big East tournament, and it’s our goal to win that. I mean we will not be happy with anything less than that. We’ve got a tough week ahead of us, but we’re excited for the challenge.”