WINGATE, N.C. – The sixth-seeded Carson-Newman Eagles (27-6) earned their first sweep in NCAA play in program history defeating the No. 3 seed USC Aiken Pacer (21-9) 26-24, 29-27 and 25-23 Thursday afternoon at Cuddy Arena in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament.
"We watched a lot of film on USC Aiken," head coach Dan Ahiers said. "We knew No. 22 was going to be a great player. We knew their setter would dump a lot of balls, but we didn't know they would be that great. As soon as we learned that we had to play defense, we got it done."
Carson-Newman surged out of the gates taking an 8-2 lead powered by two service aces from senior outside hitter Rachel Harper (Chattanooga, Tenn.). USC Aiken won six of the next seven points to pull within a point at 9-8. The score was tied for the third time in the set at 13. After trading rallies, the Eagles went on a 5-1 run to take a 21-17 lead. The Pacers battled to take a 23-22 before Ahiers used his final timeout of the set. The Eagles faced a set point at 24-23, but senior middle blocker Jenna Wilson (Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.) pounded away her fourth and fifth kills to give the Eagles a 26-24 set one win.
USC Aiken appeared to be in control throughout the second stanza leading by as many as nine points while winning 12 of the first 16 points. Carson-Newman was trailing 21-17 and won seven of the next eight points to stave off a set point and tie the score at 24. The two sides traded points until junior outside hitter Sara Fairley's (Charlotte, N.C.) service ace put the Eagles on to two sets to none with a 29-27 win.
"I think it was a family thing," senior setter Kristen Pickett said. "In the beginning, we could tell we weren't playing together and so as soon as it clicked in our heads that it was 'you play for her', it was unstoppable at that point. It was the best comeback but to be able to fight together with our team was the best part."
The third set once again proved to be highly competitive with six ties and three lead changes. USC Aiken had a 15-10 lead prompting Ahiers to call a timeout. Carson-Newman won five of the next six points to inch closer, but the Pacers regained control taking a 21-18 edge. A 4-0 spurt gave the Eagles a 22-21 lead. The two sides exchanged rallies and with the Eagles holding a 24-23 lead an attack error by Southeast Region Player of the Year Ashley Diedrich sealed the victory for Carson-Newman.
Harper finished with a match-high 16 kills to go along with seven digs and a Carson-Newman NCAA Tournament program record four service aces.
Pickett had her 12 double-double of the season with 38 assists and 17 digs while Wilson had 13 kills on a .500 attack percentage as well as three block assists.
Pacer setter Shelia Walsh had 32 assists, nine digs and eight kills to lead USC Aiken.
Carson-Newman will play the winner of No. 2 Armstrong State and No. 7 Lenoir-Rhyne Friday evening at 5 p.m. looking for its first win in the second round of the NCAA Tournament in school history.
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