Volleyball comes up short in battle of Big Sky's top dogs
GREELEY -- The Portland State Vikings scored seven straight points between games four and five Saturday night and outscored Northern Colorado 19-9 down the stretch to win a crucial five-game battle between the Big Sky's top two programs at Butler-Hancock Sports Pavilion.
The Bears (22-6, 13-2 Big Sky) recovered from the Viks' offensive onslaught in game one (.424 hitting) to tie things up at intermission and take a 2-1 lead heading into game four.
Portland State (18-8, 13-2) turned a 21-21 tie in the fourth game into a 25-21 victory and then owned the tiebreaker.
The Bears entered the match with a chance at wrapping up their first league regular-season title since joining the NCAA Division I ranks, but the Viks' 25-21, 19-25, 20-25, 25-21, 15-9 win evens both teams at the top of the league standings with Portland State owning the head-to-head tiebreaker.
Northern Colorado, the defending Big Sky Conference champions, can now only win this year's regular-season title with a Portland State loss at home next weekend against Sacramento State and a win of its own at Northern Arizona.
Regardless of that outcome, the Viks and the Bears will be the top two seeds at this year's Big Sky Championship and could well meet in the championship match.
"It's certainly motivation to prove something to Portland State," Northern Colorado coach Lyndsey Benson said. "I have no concerns that our team will be ready to play in two weeks when we're at Portland State. That is the ultimate goal for this year.
"The No. 1 or 2 seed this year is not really going to matter since (Nos.) 3 and 4 are so in the air. The seeding for this year doesn't matter. What hurts is that we won't get to host next year, but that's next year's team that would get that reward anyway."
Northern Colorado, which finished 13-2 at home this season, seemed in control of the match near the end of the fourth game after scoring three straight points to even the game at 21, on two kills from sophomore Kelley Arnold and another slam from senior Julie Stephenson.
Portland State won the next four points, though, and then the first three in game five to stun the Bears and steal all the momentum in a match that featured momentum tossed back and forth across the net as much as the game ball.
"We started getting high-error at that point, at 21-21, but I felt like we could get the momentum back in game five," Benson said. "And we battled in game five, but, certainly, that four-point swing in game four was crucial and where the match was lost.
"It was our errors on our side of the net. I'll have to look at the stats, but I'm not even sure (Portland State) executed any plays on us in that four-point stretch. It was just that we could not put the ball away in serve-receive in that stretch."
Said junior Amanda Arterburn, who led all players with a career-high 34 digs: "Games two and three felt a lot different than game four. I felt maybe we let up a little bit. I know, by all means, we didn't let up our fight in that fourth set, but it felt like that we let up our sense of urgency to get it done."
Senior Ashley Lichtenberg played one of the best matches of her career in the loss, which was her last match inside Butler-Hancock. She finished with 25 kills and hit .564 for the match. Sophomore Brittany Crenshaw slammed down 13 kills and hit .440.
Offense wasn't a problem for the Bears, who hit .280 as a team. Benson said afterward this match and a chance at hosting next year's conference tournament were lost on the defensive end.
"Ashley was scoring very well, but the downfall was their middles were scoring equally as well back at us. So the middles turned out to be a wash. We could not defend their middles effectively enough to make Ashley's offense a factor in the match. It was definitely a middles game, and whoever was going to stop the other team's middles was going to win the battle. Unfortunately, that wasn't us tonight."