The UCF Knights defeated the Cincinnati Bearcats at The Venue to take home their second American Athletic Conference Championship in back-to-back seasons.
The Knights took home the inaugural crown in five sets of back-and-forth action (21-25, 25-16, 26-24, 24-26, 15-10).
The first set featured rigorous back-and-forth between both teams that ultimately saw the Bearcats take an early lead. Sophomore setter Amber Olson delivered a smooth service ace early in the game to give UCF a 4-2 lead. Redshirt junior middle blocker Nerissa Moravec provided a solid defensive front up the middle for the Knights.
Despite a valiant rally to close the gap late in the first set, UCF could not get the job done, falling behind 25-20.
"We knew that coming into this that the only possibility of being able to run with them was to get into a shootout. It was going to take four or five of us to beat what they do," UCF head coach Todd Dagenais said.
Dagenais said he often thought back to the Sept. 13 loss to No. 7 ranked Marquette as a possible teaching moment down the stretch of the season. Tonight that moment paid off in full, he said.
"There was a lot of pressure on us being picked as conference favorites, but I also knew that Cincinnati was probably the team to beat this year," Dagenais said. "They are a tremendous team."
The second set proved to be a rally point for the Knights. UCF took a 16-9 lead thanks to a back court save by senior outside hitter Kristina Fisher. Redshirt junior middle blocker Lache Harper finished the miraculous volley with a kill to give the Knights a seven point lead. She then provided UCF with a crucial kill to give her team the second set 25-16.
Harper finished the game with 4 kills and 23 blocks with a .300 attacking percentage.
The Bearcats utilized an energetic attack to quickly take control of the third set with a 15-9 lead. Down 24-20, Harper continued her heroics with a crucial block to put UCF within three points. Junior right side hitter Anne-Marie Watson provided a clutch block of her own to eventually tie up the score.
"At that point we had nothing to lose," Fisher said of the Knights third set deficit. "When its 24 to anything the whole set is on the line. We just went out there and had the most grit I have seen us have this entire season and after scoring a couple of points we were like 'we got this' and we had some confidence and we just finished out together as a whole."
A net violation on the Bearcats and a deep volley provided the Knights with a crucial come-from-behind victory to put UCF up two sets to one.
Down 22-20 in the fourth set of the game, Dagenais called a timeout to refocus his group. The Knights would promptly tie the set up at 22 before the Bearcats scored two unanswered points of their own. UCF would not go down without a fight, tying the set up at 24 before ultimately losing the set 26-24 to give each team two sets a piece.
Bearcats redshirt senior outside hitter Jordan Thompson finished with a game-high of 38 kills and 20 digs. Dagenais had nothing but praise for the U.S. Olympic hopeful.
"There will never be another Jordan Thompson in this league again," Dagenais said. "We are lucky to have seen her in our lifetime because not only is she the best now, she's the best there ever was and she's the best that ever will be."
The final set of the day was the most intense. After tying the score at eight a piece, Harper stretched her arms out to provide a crucial block to give her team the lead. The Knights did not step off the gas, as sophomore outside hitter Mckenna Melville provided a block of her own to spark a run to close the game.
Melville, the AAC tournament MVP, finished with a team-high 27 kills, 12 digs and 2 assists.
The First Team All-Conference sophomore was not shy on words to describe her teammates' impact on her individual success.
"Team effort definitely; 100% all the way around." Melville said.
Melville accredits her team for setting up every swing or block on the stat sheet.
Despite dishing out an impressive kill to put UCF in the lead, Melville said she still wanted to be the one to put the ball into play. She recalled what she told her teammates late in the third set of the game.
"'I just had to put the ball in, you guys did everything.' I got a whole team backing me up so its nice. It's simple. [It] makes the game easy."
With its second conference title in two seasons, UCF clinched a guaranteed spot in the NCAA tournament.
The 2019 DI women's volleyball championship bracket will be announced Dec. 1 at 8:30 p.m. on ESPNU. The tournament will be held at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh.