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ND Volleyball: Irish receive at-large bid to NCAA despite loss

Conor Kelly | Monday, November 26, 2012

Just a day after spending Thanksgiving as a team at the home of Irish coach Debbie Brown, the Irish traveled to Athens, Ohio, for their final regular season game against the Bobcats on Friday, unsure of whether their season would be continuing after the game. Though Notre Dame (20-9) fell to Ohio 3-2, the team received the good news it had been awaiting when the NCAA selection committee awarded the Irish an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament Sunday.

Scheduled as a tune-up with the hope and expectation of NCAA play, the match against Ohio proved to expose Notre Dame’s propensity for slow starts as the Bobcats raced out to a 2-0 lead before the Irish could claw their way back into the match. Behind sophomore outside hitter Chelsea Bilger’s 18 kills, Ohio frustrated Notre Dame in the first two games, winning each by a score of 25-23. The Irish pulled even with wins in the third and fourth games and had the score tied at 11 in the fifth, but the Bobcats rolled off the last four points of the decisive game for the victory.

“We definitely fell short of our expectation,” Irish coach Debbie Brown said. “We had a sluggish start and got down early when we were really playing high-error and not executing the way that we have to. I thought we played well in sets three and four, but it’s disappointing that we dug ourselves a hole like that.”

Sophomore outside hitters Jeni Houser and Toni Alugbue led the offensive effort for the Irish, registering 16 and 13 kills respectively. Junior Maggie Brindock notched 48 assists in the loss.

The defeat was the third in a row for the Irish, dating back to the team’s final conference tilt against Marquette. Despite the cold streak, Brown said the confidence of her team in its ability to execute has not ebbed.

“I think it’s hard to tell whether confidence is lacking, but I don’t think that it is,” Brown said. “We know what we’re capable of doing, and in the matches where we weren’t successful I think we can identify how we played poorly. I think we can address those problems and be in a good place to compete going forward.”

Even after the match, the Irish still did not know their NCAA fate until it was announced during the tournament selection show Sunday.

Despite a disappointing first-round defeat to South Florida in the Big East tournament, a 13-2 conference record and a challenging non-conference schedule were enough for the Irish to secure a spot in the 64-team tournament, hosted by No. 16 Kentucky. Notre Dame will face No. 14 Ohio State on Friday in Lexington, Ky.

“This is where we wanted to be at the beginning of the season,” Brown said. “It’s something we’ve failed to do the last two years, so it’s important that we have achieved at least this expectation.”

The selection placed the Irish in a bracket that feature the Buckeyes, No. 16 Kentucky and No. 1 Penn State.

“Ohio State was not too much of a surprise for us as we’ve often been matched with Big Ten teams in the NCAAs,” Brown said. “They’re a very talented, senior-heavy group that is quite experienced.”

Despite the loss to Ohio, Notre Dame hopes that the match will help bridge the gap between the regular season and the postseason.

“It’s really important to have played in this time period, with the hope and knowledge that we are going to keep playing,” Brown said. “We’re not content with just making the tournament. We want to advance.”

The Irish will take on the Buckeyes on Friday at 5 p.m. at Memorial Coliseum in Lexington, Ky.

Contact Conor Kelly at [email protected]