The Texas A&M volleyball team took an early lead over the Red Storm to defeat St. John's in a three-set sweep in the first round of the NCAA Tournament at Reed Arena on Thursday.
In their first home tournament match since 2015, the No. 13 Aggies (22-7) defeated a St. John’s team that was red hot going into the tournament, coming off wins over No. 10 Creighton and No. 12 Marquette in the Big East tournament.
“That was a great win to open the tournament against a good team in St John's,” A&M coach Laura “Bird” Kuhn said. “They were rolling into this tournament, beating two ranked teams. The execution was high level. The first set they had a little bit of jitters, but they settled in and we finished that. I think that kind of set the tone for the rest of the match. I'm proud of them.”
To open the match, the Aggies built an early 12-7 lead in the first set before St. John’s stormed back, winning eight of the next 10 points to take a 15-14 lead. With the score going back and forth, a kill by Saint John’s Efrosini Alexakoue set up set point for the Red Storm. Down 24-22, the Aggies rallied off five of the next six points, including a block by Mallory Talbert and Treyaunna Rush at set point, to take the first set 27-25.
“Going out there, we had a little bit of jitters,” senior outside hitter Hollan Hans said. “But we reeled it in today. Everyone did their jobs and we were able to pull it back together and create a whole game. It was a really good team win.”
Hans, who was named to the All-SEC early last week, led the way offensively against the Red Storm, finishing with 15 kills and a service ace while leading the Aggies in digs with 10.
In the second set, the Aggies built a 10-5 lead early before St. John’s rallied to build a 14-13 lead off of kills by Saint John’s Klara Mikelova. Down 17-16, the Aggies began to separate themselves from the Red Storm, going on an 8-2 run to set point. A kill by Rush clinched the second set for the Aggies 25-21.
Junior setter Camille Connor was excellent in the second set, finishing with 13 of her team high 36 assists in the second set, while also collecting two kills and two digs. This season, Connor has finished with over 30 assists 25 times.
After the match, libero Taylor Voss said the team’s success is due to their work ethic.
“We always talk about how we are grinding team, just working for every single point,” Voss said. “If we didn't get the last point, then we're focusing on this next point. I think that's really big. We do a really good job reminding each other, ‘Don't worry about the past plays and just focus on each play at hand’. I think that was a big key to our success.”
Unlike the first two sets, A&M dominated the third set, building an early lead that they would never give up. With a 7-0 run off of kills by Hans and Rush, the Aggies took a double-digit lead over the Red Storm. A kill by Makena Patterson finished the match for the Aggies, as they clinched the third set 25-12. Patterson finished with a team-high five blocks, while also recording five kills.
Kuhn said the pressure St. John’s had in the third set helped the team stay in attack mode.
“It was more [about] the pressure they were feeling,” Kuhn said. “I told them it was one of the timeouts, this is attack mode. When a team gets like this now, you just stay attacking and keep it on them, make them feel it. Like I said, that's a good team, and out of system, we knew they were going to be strong. But once you sense that frustration, you just have to keep attacking. I'm proud of them for doing that.”
With the victory, the Aggies advance to the Second round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday, where they will face the No. 21 Rice Owls. Prior to A&M’s game, Rice swept the Oklahoma Sooners, thanks to a 16-kill performance from Rice’s Nicole Lennon.
With the game in Aggieland, the home court advantage will help the Aggies greatly, said Hans.
“It was huge for us to have the 12th Man out here tonight,” Hans said. “They showed out really great. We're super thankful for the 12th Man’s support and so it's huge for us to have that momentum and energy on our side.”
First serve against Rice is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. at Reed Arena. The game will be streamed on ESPN 3.