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Previewing The 2014 Big East Volleyball Semifinals

The top four teams in the Big East meet in Wisconsin starting this afternoon to decide who gets the league's automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

Meghan Niemann (#7) and Marquette are fired up to defend their Big East tournament crown.
Meghan Niemann (#7) and Marquette are fired up to defend their Big East tournament crown.
Maggie Bean/

Three of the teams that we'll see at the McGuire Center later today were in Omaha last year for the Big East semifinals.  The fourth is a bit of a surprise, but they challenged for the regular season title all year long.  The four teams involved feature the league's Player of the Year, Libero of the Year, Coaching Staff of the Year, and 12 of the 18 players named to one of the two all-Big East teams.

Both matches will be available on the Big East Digital Network via the Fox Sports Go app.  The winners will meet in the Big East championship game on Saturday afternoon at 4pm Central.

Semifinal #1: #1 Creighton vs #4 Xavier

When: Friday, November 28, 2014, at 3pm Central
Season Series: Creighton won, 2-0 (3-0 & 3-1)

In seven sets this season, Creighton held Xavier to 17 or fewer points four times, all in a row.  Well, kind of.  It was the second two sets of the match in Omaha and then the first two go-rounds in Cincinnati.

In Omaha, it was Xavier that was the source of their own undoing.  The Musketeers committed 19 errors and hit just .064 for the match.  That led to a fairly offensively uninteresting night for the Jays as they were led by 15 kills from all-Big East First Teamer Kelli Browning, and no one else had more than eight.  For the return bout, Xavier was still error-tastic (25 in four sets), but they boosted their hitting percentage to a relatively glowing .138.  Creighton still didn't have a dominant offensive performer in that match, led by 13 kills from Leah "Air" McNary and another 11 from Browning.  While they didn't have a feature player, Creighton did have four more players who tallied at least four kills.

I've gotten all the way through this without mentioning Jess Bird.  She's Creighton's other all-conference First Team performer.  Bird missed the non-conference schedule, but returned to the lineup to average 3.02 kills/set in conference matches, the 10th best mark in the Big East.  Middle blocker Lauren Smith is Creighton's version of Marquette's Meghan Niemann, averaging just short of a block per set and leading the Big East in hitting percentage in conference matches en route to an all-Big East Second Team nod.

Over on Xavier's side of the net, the Musketeers landed two players on the all-Big East First Team after finishing fourth in the regular season standings.  Abbey Bessler and Aubree Smith were nearly obvious choices for that recognition, with Bessler appearing on every coaches' ballot.  Bessler is a - SURPRISE - stellar sophomore outside hitter for Xavier, leading the team and ranking sixth in the Big East with 3.54 kills per set.  She helps out on defense, too, as one of just four players in the Big East to rank in the top 20 in both digs and kills.  Smith guides the Musketeer offense with 9.62 assists per set, but finds time to strike (1.44 kills/s) and defend (2.37 digs/s) as well.

Semifinal #2: #2 Seton Hall vs #3 Marquette

When: Friday, November 28, 2014, at 5:30pm Central
Season Series: 1-1, with both teams winning at home.

Marquette and Seton Hall had a historic meeting earlier this year.  In a 3-1 win at the McGuire Center, Marquette scored 117 points, setting a new NCAA record for points in a match.  Not a four set match, in any match.  The Golden Eagles dropped the first set 34-32, but rallied to win the next three, including a 35-33 win in the fourth to lock up the match. Three MU players had more than 15 kills in the match, including 25 from the 2014 Player of the Year Autumn Bailey, and freshman setter Gabby Benda recorded 60 assists.

In the return bout in South Orange, the two teams combined to go to extra points in two more sets, but both of those went in favor of the Pirates.  They went four sets again with Seton Hall coming away with the 3-1 win.  It was the first win against Marquette for SHU since the 2009 season.  The Pirates were still unable to stop Bailey, as she set the Big East high mark for kills in a four set match with 29.  That mark was only eclipsed on one occasion by any player this season, when Bailey knocked down 30 strikes against Butler in five sets.

Marquette has three players on the all-league First Team.  Bailey was joined by middle hitter Meghan Niemann (1.87 kills, 1.19 blocks) and outside hitter Lindsey Gosh (2.47 kills).  Gosh did sit out on her own senior night this past Saturday, but she had played in both of Marquette's matches the week before.  Seton Hall had three players on the all-Big East First Team, led by Libero of the Year, Tessa Fournier.  The sophomore defensive specialist was more than deserving, after leading the Big East in digs and ranking ninth nationally in that category.  Fournier was joined by the Manthorpe twins, Shelbey and Stacy.  Shelbey is the setter, averaging the third most assists in the Big East this season.  Stacey is listed as an outside hitter (3.58 kills/set, 5th in the Big East), but she gets it done on the defensive end, too, ranking 11th in the Big East in digs with 3.49 per frame.