Jason Hills, Golden Bears and Pandas Athletics
EDMONTON — The No.7 ranked University of Alberta Pandas know they have a spot locked up at the 2019 U SPORTS national championship as hosts, but by no means do they want to enter the tournament through the back door. Alberta started slow, stormed back, yet ultimately fell 3-2 (25-17, 25-23, 18-25, 15-25, 15-13) in a five-set thriller as the WolfPack upset the Pandas, Friday night at Saville Community Sports Centre to take a 1-0 lead in their best-of-three quarterfinal series.
Fourth-year outside hitter Kendra Finch led the WolfPack with 15 kills, while freshman outside hitter Olga Savenchuk chipped in with 12 kills and 16 digs.
Third-year outside hitter Kory White led Alberta with 20 kills, while third-year middle Vanessa Jarman added 11 kills and three service aces in the loss.
"We've got to set the tone right away and play the way we need to play against good teams and we didn't do that tonight," said Pandas head coach Laurie Eisler. "You have to have courage and believe in yourself and we didn't do that until our backs were against the wall; desperate and good teams take advantage of that."
Alberta was sluggish in the opening set and the WolfPack pounced. After they took an 11-10 lead, they didn't look back.
By comparison, the Pandas were out of sync in the opening set as they only generated six kills.
The Pandas had the WolfPack on their heels in the second set, however, and looked to have the set wrapped up, but Thompson Rivers went on an 11-3 run to close out the second set and snag a set win.
"We know they're a really strong team. The last time we played them, they really laid a licking on us. I like how we responded after being down two sets," said Eisler.
"We didn't serve aggressively enough to get them out of their offence. We played more aggressive and that turned the tide, but you have to give them credit to be able to shelve that momentum and get the win."
The third and fourth sets were all Alberta as they virtually led from start to finish in both sets. After struggling in the opening two sets, the Pandas ripped the momentum away from the WolfPack and looked in full control.
Senior setter Mariah Walsh was spreading the ball around better offensively and sophomore outside hitter Emma Kieftenbeld stepped up in the absence of third-year outside hitter Erin Corbett, who didn't play in Game 1.
But despite Alberta's strong comeback attempt, Thompson Rivers found a way to pull it out in the ultra-tight fifth set.
"We had to start getting more aggressive at the service line. They served real tough after the first couple sets and they came at us and really wore us down, but the good news is we've been in a lot of five sets this year," said WolfPack head coach Chad Grimm.
"I think that was our seventh, and we've won all seven. I think the girls feel real comfortable in that position and they enjoy being in a fifth set in a playoff game."
The game was a grind for both teams as Alberta and Thompson Rivers combined for 23 service errors and respective attack percentages of .121 and .146.
"It wasn't super pretty on both sides at times, but we found a way to grind it out," said Grimm.
The Pandas now face playoff elimination, and Eisler knows her squad will need a much stronger performance. Alberta played their best late in Game 1, but dug too big of a hole.
"We have to bounce back. We don't have many more opportunities when everything is on the line and tomorrow is," said Eisler. "It's good that we have our backs against the wall from the first whistle and we're going to have to respond.
"We'll grow a lot from this tonight, and tomorrow night we'll need to be better."
Alberta and the WolfPack will continue their quarter-final series on Saturday at 3 p.m. Mountain Time.