It wasn’t supposed to be this easy. South Carolina entered the match winners of five of its last six matches, dropping only three sets in the process. The Tigers came into the match on a run of their own as well, winning seven of their last nine matches. The matchup between two of the hottest teams in the SEC was supposed to be competitive.
However, the match in the Hearnes Center on Sunday was anything but close.
Missouri put on an impressive performance in its straight-set (25-21, 27-25, 25-21) victory over South Carolina. The match was highlighted by a second-set comeback that left the crowd on its feet throughout the entire duration between the second and third set timeout.
“It was big,” head coach Joshua Taylor said. “I don’t think the crowd realizes how big of an impact they are. Every single point, right when we got to 21, they were cheering like we had won the whole match. It was so empowering for the team and even the coaching staff so we really appreciated their support.”
A tough South Carolina team had Missouri on the ropes at 24-19 late in the second set. Then, Kayla Caffey and Leketor Member-Meneh led an impressive comeback that stands out as one of the most memorable points of the season to date.
Missouri executed to perfection on offense and defense in its 8-1 run to close out the second set. Caffey and Member-Meneh combined for three kills and three blocks in the comeback. The second-set victory shifted the momentum from the Gamecocks to the Tigers in a hurry as Missouri quickly jumped ahead 2-0 in the match.
“We knew we didn’t have to be in that position,” Missouri outside hitter Kylie Deber said. “We shouldn’t have even been down in the set. We decided to finally play and have energy and it made us win.”
“(The comeback) gave us a lot more confidence,” Missouri setter Andrea Fuentes said. “I don’t know how we would have come out in that third set if we had lost. It gave us a lot of confidence to go up 2-0 and play free and confident in the next set.”
Missouri’s comeback was then followed up with the best offensive set of the match to ensure a straight-set victory. The Tigers hit .429 on 20 kills. Deberg had eight kills in the third set alone.
The duo of Deberg and Member-Meneh were on full display Sunday. Missouri’s outside hitters combined for 30 kills on .387 hitting in Missouri’s sweep.
“It’s kind of hard to put into words at times (how important Deberg and Member-Meneh are),” Taylor said. “I think they are both becoming incredibly steady. This is only their second year as being full-time stud starters who have to carry a really large load. So the consistency might have been a worry at the beginning but they have done such a great job maintaining a high level of play regardless of our opponent. It can’t be put on a stat sheet what they bring.”
The recent offensive surge of Caffey was also noticed by her head coach. Caffey, who had a career-high 13 kills on Nov. 8 and a team-leading 11 kills on Friday, recorded another nine kills on .615 hitting on Sunday.
“We were just setting Kayla (Caffey) more and when you have one of your middle blockers hitting. .615, that’s just ridiculous,” Taylor said. “When your middle is hitting over .400 you’re jumping up and down, so .615 is insane.”
The win marked Missouri’s eighth victory in 10 games. The Tigers improved to 18-6 on the season and 10-4 in SEC play. The Tigers now sit in fourth place in the SEC, trailing Georgia, who Missouri beat on Nov. 10, by only half a game.
“I think this is the team we saw in preseason and it has to do with our confidence,” Fuentes said. “I hope we continue to build on this. We have been making our focus in practice to come out and dominate and it’s awesome to be able to see what’s come out of that.”
The win extended Missouri’s win streak to four. The Tigers have now won two straight matches in straight sets.
“The SEC is a tough conference to get any type of wins in so getting two sweeps is huge,” Taylor said. “We had a mentality of not coming to play good volleyball, but coming out to dominate our opponent. I think our girls did a great job of doing that Friday as well as today.”
As the race towards the NCAA Tournament gets closer to the finish line, Missouri needs every win possible to have a chance to host the first and second round. South Carolina entered the match at No. 42 in the RPI, giving the Tigers their fifth top 50 RPI victory of the season.
“Every game is really valuable for where we can be seeded (in the tournament),” Deberg said. “If we end up winning all of them, we do have a chance to host so that is in the back of our minds. But, it’s important we take it one game at a time.”
Missouri continues play at 6 p.m. Wednesday against No. 17 Kentucky in Lexington. This match will be the Tigers’ last against a ranked opponent in the regular season. It will broadcast live on SEC Network.