By Albert Luna
The New Mexico State Aggies were able to hold off a late charge by Utah Valley to defeat the Wolverines, 3-1, to stay undefeated in WAC play on Thursday night.
The highly anticipated matchup was a meeting of two WAC powerhouses, with NMSU coming in with a perfect mark in conference play and sitting alone at the top of the standings as they began to hit the teeth of the conference schedule. UVU came into the contest at second place, with only one loss in conference play on their record.
NMSU started off strong, getting off to a 4-1 start, in part thanks to two points scored early by Gwen Murphy. Utah Valley would rally back however, keeping the set fairly close, even coming within two points of the Aggies early off in the set.
However, NMSU was able to gain some momentum halfway through the set, which was highlighted by two straight kills by Nathalie Castellanos and Sasha-Lee Thomas that gave the Aggies separation, 10-6, early. The Aggies built off that momentum, going on a strong run that put them ahead, 15-8, before the Wolverines were forced to call a timeout.
Utah Valley came out firing on all cylinders, capitalizing on some miscues by the Aggies to cut the lead significantly, forcing NMSU to call a timeout with the scoreboard reading 20-17, still in the home team’s favor. A bit of a scary moment ensued when sophomore Jordan Abalos went down with an apparent right knee injury, and play was stopped as the outside hitter was helped off the court.
The Aggies were eventually able to take the set, 25-19. Gwen Murphy and Natalie Castellanos led the way in the first set with three kills apiece.
“We are confident in ourselves as a team,” freshman Brianna Ainsworth says. “We attribute that to a lot of the tough competition that we have played in our non-conference schedule.”
The Aggies got off to a slow start in the second set of play. The Wolverines, to their credit, came out with much more intensity than their counterparts, with UVU controlling the tempo from the start. NMSU was unable to gain any type of momentum even midway through the set, as Coach Mike Jordan called a timeout with his squad trailing, 16-9.
The Aggies struggled to find any type of accuracy on their shots as Utah Valley kept successfully digging any Aggie attempts. Although the Aggies showed a sliver of life down the stretch that was cultivated with a pair of kills by Murphy and Castellanos, the women dropped the second set, 25-15.
The Aggies went into halftime with their first-place conference standing hanging precariously on the line, to be determined in three sets. Tatyana Battle led the Aggies with six kills in the set, a bright spot for the freshman who is quickly becoming a key player for the Aggies.
The Aggies came out guns blazing early, with a pair of Sasha-Lee Thomas kills to show for it as they went up early, 6-1. The Wolverines showed some fight of their own, as they cut the lead a few times throughout the set.
But NMSU was not letting this set get away. Thomas, along with key contributions from freshman Tatyana Battle and Ainsworth, proved to be pivotal, according to Jordan.
“They played well tonight,” Jordan says. “They’re at step one, they have a lot to learn, but they’re making a lot of plays, they fit the system well.”
Battle, who had a game-high 15 kills in the match, says she knows and embraces her role on the team.
“Today, I just wanted to come out and play up to my teammates’ level,” she says.
NMSU took the set, 25-12, in a blowout set that somehow took almost 30 minutes to complete.
UVU did not go away easily. The set was back and forth for the majority of the time, with the Aggies able to pull away down the stretch, at one point up 22-16. The Wolverines stayed persistent, even briefly gaining the lead at 17-15, which prompted an angry Jordan to call time.
Although the Aggies didn’t respond ideally out of the break, they were still able to garner enough points to escape with a victory, 25-22, to win the match.
“We started off the game really slow,” Ainsworth says. “Serving is not where it’s supposed to be.”
The Aggies next play Seattle University on Saturday at 1 p.m. in the Pan Am. Jordan says he is looking forward to the challenge.
“(Seattle is)good,” he says. “We’re looking forward to a good crowd, we know they’re physical.”
Albert Luna may be reached at ALuna32@nmsu.edu
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