By Tyler Wooten
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- The Saluki volleyball team fell in its season opener in three sets to 20th-ranked North Carolina at the first day of the Illini Classic at Huff Hall on Friday.
After going down two sets, Southern (0-1) played a hard-fought third frame that featured 10 ties and three lead changes. But, the Tar Heels (1-0) were consistent with a strong team attack clip of .309, which they rode to a three-set victory over the Salukis.
The Salukis struck first in the initial set, all while featuring a starting lineup that consisted of two true freshmen (Ashley Edelen and Anna Himan) and one redshirt freshman in Andrea Estrada. Himan and sophomore Meg Viggars started the match off with a block assist, but UNC followed with three unanswered. The Tar Heels cruised to a 12-5 lead before SIU took a timeout to stem the flow. The Salukis rallied back four of the next five points scored to close the gap, but that would be as close as they got as UNC cruised to a 25-18 win.
The Tar Heels jumped out to a 5-0 lead (which included three kills) in the second set, but Southern showed some resiliency and fought back to within four at 13-9. Four would, again, be as close as SIU got, though, as the Tar Heels used their match-best .387 kill percentage in the second set to win 25-18.
"There was some back and forth throughout those first two sets," said SIU head coach Justin Ingram. "I thought that North Carolina certainly capitalized on those point runs. Once we started creeping back into the match and got it relatively close within a couple points, North Carolina would then gain a few of their own. It was because of our errors, whether it was an attack error or a service error or a net violation or whatever. We just never got close enough to fully gain control of those sets."
"In the third it was different," Ingram said. "We jumped out early and we showed confidence in our serve and we were gaining points easier in that set because of our serve. However, we missed some as well. It went back-and-forth in that third set. If we would have played four I would have felt really good about our chances, and again if we had played five. The longer the match went the more comfortable our team was feeling."
Leading the Salukis offensively were junior Taylor Pippen (8 kills, 16 attacks, .375), Estrada (7 kills, 23 attacks, .174) and Estrada's fellow freshman, Abby Barrow (7 kills, 17 attacks, .353). The trio combined for 22 of SIU's 29 total kills on Friday.
"Three good showings by them," Ingram said. "I thought they had some key kills and points throughout the course of the match, and not just in the third set. But, those are three of the six that we had attacking, so half were at a good mark and the other half didn't meet their averages. Some of that was North Carolina's defense and their block system, they're pretty big. But I also think some of that was us."
Up next, Southern will face off against No. 11 Illinois at 10 a.m. Saturday morning, followed by a matchup with Long Beach State -- who is receiving votes -- at 5 p.m.
"These first tournaments you're throwing darts, trying to figure out what's gonna work and what's gonna score," Ingram said. "And those teams that can rally a bit from adversity. Those are teams that normally come out on top in the first few matches of the season."