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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, November 24, 2001

Wahine turn back Utes in five games

By Ann Miller
Advertiser Staff Writer

STOCKTON, Calif. — When the University of Hawai'i Wahine were last seen here, they were hoping to salvage a volleyball season gone terribly wrong opening weekend. Resilience has replaced rampant depression.

Utah's Sylvia Strzinkova tried to spilt the block of Hawai'i's Jennifer Carey, left, and Nohea Tano.

Craig Sanders • Special to The Honolulu Advertiser

Last night, ninth-ranked Hawai'i gave 13th-ranked Utah a third-game gift, then finished the Utes off, 24-30, 30-19, 27-30, 30-23, 15-7. The Wahine (27-4), who have won 24 straight, play 14th-ranked Pacific (25-7) tonight for the championship of the Community Bankers Classic.

The Tigers beat Fairfield, 30-17, 30-23, 28-30, 30-18, in the other opening-round match, played before 1,945 at Spanos Center.

WAC champion Hawai'i, Mountain West champion Utah (22-6) and Big West runner-up Pacific are 2-3-4 in the latest West Region ratings. That gives this tournament, which ends two days before the NCAA field is announced, a playoff atmosphere.

Last night's victory over the Utes should clinch the region's second seed (behind unbeaten No. 1 Long Beach State) for the Wahine, according to coach Dave Shoji's unofficial calculations. Hawai'i also kept its records against Utah (9-0) and in five-game matches (3-0) perfect.

But it took 30 Kim Willoughby kills and nearly two hours of tenacity against the biggest block UH has seen since it lost to top-six teams Nebraska and Wisconsin here to start the season. Utah plays a 6-2 system, rotating its two small, young setters into the back row. Its blockers average 6 feet 1 and have held teams to .149 hitting this season. The Wahine hit .178 — 135 points below their average — and still found a way last night.

"They were all big bangers," Willoughby said. "We were constantly having to worry about someone in our face."

Willoughby broke Teee Williams' season record for kills (688) with her first two last night. She became the 12th Wahine to slam 1,000 career kills moments later. Still, Hawai'i lost Game 1 when Utah's Lenka Urbanova broke a 21-all tie by serving four points.

The Utes hit .382 in that game. They finished at .155 as their passing broke down and the Wahine defense, anchored by Lauren Duggins and Margaret Vakasausau, dug in. Hawai'i also — somewhat miraculously — out-blocked Utah 15-13. UH middles Nohea Tano and Duggins were in on a dozen stuffs. Former Wahine Adrianne (Bradley) Drake had 11 for Utah.

All the blocking and poor passing made for a ragged match that the Wahine began to control in Game 2. The momentum took a radical turn early, when Hedder Ilustre pinballed a Utah block up while the Utes were already celebrating in the backcourt.

One of Willoughby's 10 second-game kills followed and Hawai'i never lost that 2-0 advantage. Willoughby knocked over Drake — attempting to block — with one kill during a 5-0 UH run. She had a kill and two aces during a 6-0 surge that put Hawai'i up, 25-18.

"Our groove wasn't totally on," Vakasausau said. "But we found a good kind of groove where when a ball did go down against us we didn't respond negatively. We were able to maintain a high level of energy, except for Game 3, which we should have won. There wasn't any part of the match where we thought we were going to lose."

The Wahine finished off Game 2, but couldn't close Utah out despite a 23-16 advantage in Game 3. They were outscored 14-4 at the end and gave the Utes' nine of their points, including four wild Willoughby spikes.

"She's been so good all year," Shoji said. "She's allowed to have a bad streak."

All it eventually meant was that this match — Hawai'i's first to go more than three games in nearly a month — would last a little longer.

"Nobody panicked," Shoji said. "Sometimes when things go bad people start clamming up and stop talking, looking away. That didn't happen out there. Everybody was pretty focused. When they beat themselves in Game 3, they just wanted to play harder."

The Wahine never trailed in Game 4, as Maja Gustin and Jennifer Carey clawed out of negative hitting nights. Hawai'i thoroughly dominated Game 5, with Gustin's 12th kill giving her the serve with an 11-7 advantage. Two Utah errors and an ace gave the Wahine match point. The Utes, with four starters back from the team that lost at Hawai'i in last year's NCAA tournament, let that fall untouched to the floor.

"They seemed really tired," Vakasausau said. "They played really hard the whole match and we just stuck it out and forced them to make bad choices."

Utah coach Beth Launiere felt her team was still spent from its dramatic run to the MWC title last week. She would like another chance against Hawai'i.

"I think we match up well with Hawai'i," Launiere said. "I'd love to see Hawai'i in the NCAA Tournament. But not the second round. Sometime much later.

"I never felt like we had the momentum all night. We were not at our best and you just feel like you can beat them because they are fairly one-dimensional. But they're tough to stop."

QUICK SETS: UH sophomore Kim Willoughby has 1,025 career kills. Teee Williams' UH record is 1,873. ... Last night was Willoughby's sixth match this season with 30 or more kills.