After a defensive lull in the fourth set against a winless Ole Miss team, Missouri blocked the Rebels four times in the fifth set to escape with a victory in Oxford.
When the Tigers (5-2) arrived at the Gillom Athletics Performance Center on Friday for their first of the two-game series, they came short-handed. Because of injuries and opt-outs, Missouri only had nine active players for the contest — the Southeastern Conference minimum.
However, it seemed as if the limited roster wouldn’t affect the No. 8 Tigers after a dominant 25-13 first set victory. But, the Rebels (0-5) were able to contain Missouri star Kylie Deberg in the second set and stormed back to steal it from the Tigers, 25-23.
Deberg, who had six kills and tore apart the Rebels defense in the first set, was held to an unusually small three kills and had a hit percentage of .160 in the second set.
Missouri coach Josh Taylor and his team proved in the third set why they were the clear favorites heading into the match, though. In the early stages of the set, the Tigers strung together 14 unanswered points to take the momentum back from the Rebels.
Offensively, Missouri improved its hit percentage from .154 to .312 between the sets, which allowed the Tigers to tally 14 kills in the third. Ole Miss couldn’t find a way to stop the offensive trio of Deberg, Anna Dixon, and Dariana Hollingsworth-Santana, losing the set 25-13.
The Tigers were hoping to ride the momentum of the third set into the match-clinching fourth set, but Ole Miss coach Kayla Banwarth and her team didn’t let it happen.
The Rebels once again came alive late into the set to win it, 25-19. Rather than the Missouri offense struggling this time, it was the defense that was exposed.
Along with St. Louis product Anna Bair, Rebels freshman GG Carvacho spotted the gaps in the Tigers defense, not allowing the Tigers to gain a single block in the set. Bair led the Rebels with 13 kills and Carvacho followed with 10 kills.
Despite the inconsistent performance in the first four sets, Missouri was able to regain focus and avoid being upset by the Rebels for the second straight season; and it started with the defense.
Middle blocker Claudia Dillon and Hollingsworth-Santana led the effort at the net, combining for four blocks in the crucial set. The overall defensive effort made the Rebels tally seven attack errors, ultimately holding Ole Miss to a hit percentage of -.235 in the set.
Missouri scored nine unanswered points to officially end any chance of an upset, winning the fifth set 15-4.
Playing five sets with only nine players was already difficult enough for the Tigers, but with a two-week break since their last match against Arkansas, conditioning also seemed to take a toll on the short-handed team.
“Conditioning was definitely an issue, but we really came out strong and locked in during the fifth set,” Taylor said. “We had a lot of different people step up throughout the day and our depth was crucial to our success.”
Dixon led the team with 17 kills, followed by Deberg with 16 kills and Hollingsworth-Santana with 13. Andrea Fuentes set the attackers up with 41 assists.
With the Tigers finishing up their fall season Saturday against the Rebels, Taylor hopes that his team can have the effort of the first, third and fifth sets of Friday throughout the entire game Saturday.
“I think if we come out tomorrow with a little more consistency, we’ll be able to be even better,” Taylor said.
Missouri takes on Ole Miss for the second match of the two game series at noon Saturday in Oxford. The game will be televised on the SEC Network+.