Allie Barber racked up 23 kills in just four sets as #2 seeded Marquette Golden Eagles volleyball rallied from a first set defeat to beat #3 seeded St. John’s 3-1 (16-25, 25-23, 25-16, 25-19) in the 2018 Big East volleyball semifinals on Friday afternoon. The Golden Eagles advance to the Big East championship game for the second consecutive season, and to no one’s surprise, it will be a rematch of last year’s title game. Marquette will face off against top seeded Creighton Bluejays after the Bluejays knocked off #4 seeded Villanova in the second semifinal match of the day.
Last weekend, Marquette and St. John’s faced off in the regular season finale for both squads, and after a bit of a challenge in the first set, the Golden Eagles mostly walked through the Red Storm in the next two sets. Whether it was high energy from the Red Storm over making their first Big East tournament appearance since 2012 or the newly crowned Big East Coaching Staff of the Year noticing some things that could help them last week, St. John’s was all over Marquette in the first set even more so than a week ago. Marquette had their worst hitting performance of the match on both offense and defense in the opener as they allowed the Red Storm to hit .429 while hitting just .219 themselves. That’s wildly out of character for a Marquette squad that led the Big East in hitting percentage this year and held opposing hitters to just .206 on the year. Things really fell apart for Marquette in the back half of the set as they had pulled it within three at the 13-10 mark. From there, MU never put together two consecutive points for the rest of the set as Efrosini Alexakou put the Golden Eagles away with her seventh kill of the opening frame.
The second set started out much like the first, with Marquette unable to find two points to rub together. A kill from Rachele Rastelli put SJU up 11-6 and things were looking an awful lot like the Red Storm were going to take a serious run at pulling the upset against the team #16 in the country in the latest AVCA coaches poll. Then, like a bolt from the blue: A 7-0 run from Marquette. Six of the points came from the MU offense with Barber knocking down four kills and Anna Haak adding a service ace. Still, even then, the Marquette lead was only 13-11, and that meant it was time to buckle your seatbelts. We saw ties at 15, 17, 18, 19, 20, and 21 before the Golden Eagles knocked together two more points after the 21-all tie on kills from Barber and Hope Werch. At that point, all MU had to do was fend off the Red Storm, and a setting error by All-Big East First Teamer Erica Di Maulo handed the Golden Eagles the 25-23 win.
Set #3 started off much more to head coach Ryan Theis’ liking with a 4-0 MU lead on three kills from Barber. That four point margin slowly turned into five, then six, then seven at 11-4 on a kill by Jenna Rosenthal. That good mood didn’t last long, though, as the Red Storm plugged away at the lead and a kill from Kayley Wood pulled them within two at 16-14. Well, all that did was make Marquette mad. A kill from Rosenthal set off an 8-0 run for the Golden Eagles, and while the previous MU runs were derived from the offense, this one was because St. John’s started handing them the match. The Red Storm committed four attack errors in the run, with two coming on Marquette blocks, and added a ball handling error from Big East Libero of the Year Amanda Sanabia. All of a sudden, it was 24-15 and the finale from Madeline Mosher was merely academic and clinical.
A mini-rally started off the fourth set as MU bounced back from three straight St. John’s points to start with an 8-0 run of their own capped by a kill by — GUESS WHO — Allie Barber. Even then, the Red Storm weren’t dead, eventually ripping off three straight points to get within one at 17-16. Barber stemmed the tide to set off a 4-0 burst from the Golden Eagles and put the finish line in sight at 21-16. The two teams traded points the rest of the way and eventually, as it was a week ago, Rosenthal put the hammer down to give MU the 3-1 victory on the afternoon.
Barber was her usually efficient self to get to the match high 23 kills, hitting .345 on the day. Werch assembled a double-double with 11 kills and 10 digs, and Haak made up for her .167 hitting percentage with 15 digs on the back end. Elizabeth Orf was a grim specter of death for the Red Storm, putting up seven kills on just 15 swings and adding five assisted blocks and a solo stuff as well.
Creighton advanced to the semifinals by way of a 3-0 sweep of Villanova. It was the eight straight sweep for the Bluejays, and as coincidence would have it, the last team to take a set from them was Marquette back on October 26th. Ranked #9 in the country in the AVCA poll, it’s no surprise that the Jays went 18-0 in Big East play, at least not in retrospect. You’d have to think that MU and CU splitting the first place votes 6-4 in the preseason poll leading to Marquette being picked as the league favorite this season stuck in their craw ever so slightly.
Marquette and Creighton is a fascinating matchup, even if the Jays won the season series with a set score of 6-1 this year. It’s the two best hitting offenses in the league with the two teams ending up as the only teams to hit over .225 this season and they cruised over .260. Where it gets intriguing is Creighton was the Big East’s best hitting defense this year, holding opponents to just .171 coming into this weekend. Marquette’s defense of .206 is nothing to sneeze at, especially when paired with their offense, but it still was only good enough for sixth best in the conference.
What makes the Jays so particularly deadly is the fact that their best player isn’t their best hitter, at least not on the stat sheet. Yes, Taryn Kloth leads the squad with over four kills per set, but it sure makes head coach Kirsten Bernthal Booth’s life much easier to have the 2018 Big East Player of the Year as the second most prolific hitter on the roster. That’s all-everything outside hitter Jaali Winters, and with the number of Creighton records that the senior from Ankeny, Iowa has set, you could make a very serious argument that Winters is the best volleyball player in Big East history, not just Bluejay history. Averaging over 3.8 kills per set and just barely short of three digs per set, Winters is a terror at all six spots on the floor. Pair Kloth and Winters with the most prolific setter in the Big East in Madelyn Cole, a tip top middle blocker like Naomi Hickman, and a libero like Brittany Witt that ends up underrated because she plays with Winters, and you have a fearsome roster to deal with no matter the situation.
There is, however small, a chance that Marquette could end up hosting the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament. As of Monday, the Golden Eagles held the #15 ranking in the NCAA’s RPI, and the top 16 seeds as designated by the selection committee get to host those opening rounds. The RPI isn’t the final say, of course, but Marquette just picked up a neutral floor win over #104 St. John’s, and win or lose, they get credit for playing a road match against #16 Creighton. Don’t get me wrong here: Marquette is absolutely going to be in the NCAA tournament, there’s no doubt of that, so they don’t need the Big East’s automatic bid that they would earn by winning the tournament. However, if they want to give themselves two home matches with a shot at earning the program’s first ever appearance in the Sweet 16, then yes, Marquette absolutely needs to beat the Bluejays on Saturday.
First serve is scheduled for 4pm Central in Omaha, and the match will be televised on FS2.