EVANSVILLE, Ind. – The No. 1 UNI Panther volleyball team claimed this year's Missouri Valley Conference Volleyball Championship title with a 3-2 victory (25-20, 19-25, 19-25, 25-22, 15-13) Wednesday in a five-set epic against the No. 2 Drake Bulldogs. UNI (26-7 overall) secures a spot in the NCAA Volleyball Championship for the 24th time in program history.
The Panthers picked up their league-record 18th tournament crown within their conference-best 26th appearance in the final round. The Bulldogs (26-7 overall) finished as the runner-up for the fourth time in as many tournament title tilts including their third such meeting against their in-state rivals.
Olivia Tjernagel was the MVC Volleyball Championship MVP, and Kira Fallert picked up the Elite 17 Award. Sydney Petersen and Carly Spies joined Tjernagel on the all-tournament team. The other honorees were Doga Topcicek (Bradley), Haley Bush (Drake), Mariana Rodrigues (Drake), Giulia Cardona (Evansville), Darci Metzger (Murray State), Imani Hartfield (Southern Illinois), Martina Delucchi (UIC), and Miranda Strongman (Valparaiso).
UNI collected a tournament-record 15 aces, a match-best 14 blocks, 65 digs, and 63 kills on .192 hitting. By comparison, Drake posted just three service winners and 10 blocks but also notched 86 digs and 61 kills with a .253 attack percentage. Tjernagel's career-high 18 kills highlighted the UNI offense. Inga Rotto added 13 terminations featuring the 1,000th kill of her career and tied Spies at a contest-best seven blocks apiece. Spies totaled 10 kills and a personal-high four aces to match Payton Ahrenstorff as the most productive server Wednesday. Both of the Petersen twins reached double digits defensively with Sydney Petersen's team-leading 27 digs and Baylee Petersen's 11 digs.
After the Panthers built an 11-7 first-set lead, the Bulldogs battled back and pushed the frame into a sequence of deadlocks beginning at 13-13. Emily Holterhaus and Spies teamed up for a block to force a 19-19 tie, and Spies followed with a kill that put UNI ahead for good. Tjernagel, who went 7-of-11 in the stanza, tallied four of her terminations down the stretch and lifted the Panthers to their 25-20 win.
In the second, UNI erased a 6-2 deficit on a four-point run featuring kills from Fallert and Alden. The Panthers pulled even again, 10-10, when Spies partnered with Alden and then Holterhaus for back-to-back blocks. However, Drake jumped in front for the remainder of the set for a 25-19 victory which evened the contest at 1-1.
There were five quick ties during the third prior to three consecutive Bulldog points that started a 6-1 tiebreaking outburst. The Panthers leveled the score twice with an Ahrenstorff ace and an Alden kill creating respective deadlocks of 12-12 and 13-13. Drake once again slipped past UNI for another 25-19 triumph and a 2-1 edge.
A must-win fourth began with UNI turning its early 2-1 deficit into an 8-2 lead featuring multiple kills and blocks by Rotto. Drake's latest comeback helped keep the action close moving forward. The 10th and final tie of the period came at 22-22, and a trio of Bulldog attack errors with Rotto leading two combined rejections resulted in a 25-22 win which squared the tilt, 2-2.
Spies carried the Panthers to a quick 3-1 advantage within the fifth thanks to a tandem block and two service aces in a row. UNI's lead grew to 6-3 before one more Drake push brought the two sides closer together for the rest of the way. Tjernagel's go-ahead termination and Ahrenstorff's service winner allowed the Panthers to break away for a 14-12 edge. On the second match point, Rotto bested a Bulldog triple block as her kill clinched the 15-13 victory and the 3-2 championship triumph.
Selection Sunday is next on the UNI schedule with the 2022 NCAA Division I Women's Volleyball Championship Selection Show airing on ESPNU at 6:30 p.m. CT. The Panthers are expected to play their first-round match either Thursday, Dec. 1 or Friday, Dec. 2 with a date, time, site, and opponent to be determined Sunday evening.