Mountain too big for Lady Vols to climb at NCAA tournament

Standing in front of the net, Kayla Jeter motioned toward the Tennessee bench.

The senior outside hitter lifted her shoulders upward and raised her arms.

It is unclear whether Jeter's gesture was done out of confusion or frustration, but both emotions wouldn't be out of the realm of possibilities on Thursday night.

The Lady Vols' first-round NCAA tournament volleyball match against Michigan certainty could have elicited both.

After getting thrashed by the Wolverines in the first two sets, UT surpassed the frustration and overcame the confusion.

The Lady Vols bowed their necks, winning two straight matches to force a decisive fifth.

But it was too little, too late.

UT couldn't muster enough to take the final set, surrendering a 3-2, teeth-gnashing defeat to Michigan (24-11) at the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville, Ky., to end the Lady Vols' season.

For UT (22-8), the contest marked a program re

cord fifth-consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament. The Lady Vols concluded the season winning 13 of their last 16 matches.

"I thought they represented the University of Tennessee and our volleyball program really well," Lady Vols coach Rob Patrick said in a telephone interview. "It wasn't like Michigan all of a sudden started playing horrible. We actually started playing our game a little bit."

But UT's 12th fifth-set match of the season took its toll.

Heads hung and elongated sighs were taken as they exited the floor.

Leslie Cikra was at the forefront of Tennessee's comeback hopes. The senior tallied 12 kills, including three in the fifth set.

"When Leslie gets into a groove, she brings so much energy to the team and you really saw that tonight," Jeter said.

But Cikra's groove wasn't as contagious as UT would have liked.

Patrick said his team's focus going into the contest was to play stout defense at the net.

That didn't happen.

At least not soon enough.

UT recorded just two blocks in the first two matches, as the Wolverines rocketed out to an early 2-0 set point advantage.

With it, the Lady Vols' well-documented woes against the Big Ten Conference continued, despite a late resurgence of 14 blocks in the final three sets.

"Yeah, we talked about (our struggles with the Big Ten)," Jeter said. "Especially to the underclassmen who haven't been around. It's frustrating to know that if you got your dig or something, this could have changed. This one felt different."

But it wasn't.

The Lady Vols haven't beaten a Big Ten opponent in nine straight tries, dating back to 2007.

In fact, Big Ten teams have eliminated Tennessee from four consecutive NCAA tournaments.

"There's no reason to be sorry," Jeter said. "Every team but one ends the season with a loss. I believe that we could have been that team. But I will go out in anything in life fighting, I'll never just roll over. I'm proud to wear that 'Tennessee' on my chest."

Riley Blevins is a freelance contributor.

© 2012 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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