Before tonight, UB Volleyball hadn't won a fifth set all season, dropping pivotal sets to South Florida, EMU, Bowling Green, and Kent State.
Tonight's regular season finale against Toledo in northwest Ohio demanded a fifth set after a surprisingly even first two between the Bulls and the Rockets, and UB picked a great time to win their first fifth set of the season, topping their opponent 15-12 in the final frame to secure a spot in the eight-team MAC tournament - a high-water mark for the program, which has just one win in the conference tournament since joining in 1999.
Toledo should not have put up this much of a fight, though they had pushed Miami to five sets earlier in the conference slate. The Rockets were winless in the MAC and 1-26 overall. But Buffalo got only limited contribution from outside hitter Tahleia Bishop, who had sat out Thursday's match against Akron with a wrist injury, and was forced go the distance in tight sets against the hosts.
Buffalo used a four-point run midway through the first and were able to pull away from a 20-20 tie late to take the first frame by the narrowest margin. The Bulls trailed throughout in the second - the most lopsided of the match. Tahleia Bishop entered for a few points and got one kill at 8-14, but was not a factor.
Each team took turns claiming momentum tonight, and the third was no different: UB played from behind for much of the second and trailed as late as 18-16, but used a 7-1 run on two kills from Megan Lipski and serves from Marissa Prinzbach to take a lead and ultimately get within one set of the postseason.
UB couldn't close it out in four, though, as the Rockets spun off a 7-4 run to build a 19-12 lead. When the Bulls got within one later in the set, consecutive attack errors from Sable Staller and two from Tahleia Bishop pushed Toledo to a 23-19 lead they wouldn't relinquish.
Last weekend I called Kent State a 'must-win,' and that five-set loss, at home even, was crushing. Tonight the Bulls, without their best option on attack and facing an opposing hitter over .600, needed to find a way to win, or would need to turn their attention to a pair of MAC matchups at 7 PM.
UB trailed 3-5 early in the fifth set, but capitalized on four Rocket errors and kills from Megan Lipski and Amber Hatchett to take a lead they wouldn't give up. Toledo scored five straight and thrice was within one of the Bulls late, but the last two points came on kills from Akeila Lain and Skyler Day to push the Bulls into the postseason.
On the evening, the two teams were evenly matched in most stats, with Toledo only having a clear advantage in hitting percentage - outhitting the Bulls .208 to .184. Given five sets of opportunity, though, it was the middle that once again led the way for the Bulls: Cassie Shado (12), Akeila Lain (13), and Amber Hatchett (9) combined for 34 kills. Megan Lipski added 10 and freshman Skyler Day continued to play well in Bishop's place, with 15.
Niki Bozinoski once again led the Bulls with 21 digs, though most everyone had a handful. Megan Lin and Marissa Prinzbach continued to split setter duties, and Shado and Lain, of course, led the way with 8 blocks a piece.
With the win, UB claims the eighth seed in the MAC Tournament, and will play the #5 seed next weekend as Ohio hosts tournament play. Right now the exact order is undetermined, and pending tonight's results UB could be facing Western Michigan, Eastern Michigan, or Kent State.