By Kristen Keller
The UIC Flames took to the court Friday night against the Oakland Golden Grizzlies of Oakland University. During this Horizon League matchup, the Flames swept the last three sets after falling to Oakland in the first set.
Outside hitter Kiera James and opposite Clara Lamb led the offense during the first set with seven and four kills, respectively. Libero Manuela Conte also contributed on the defensive end, racking up six kills during the first set.
The Flames fought off the Grizzlies for most of the match, but their offensive efforts were not enough to keep Oakland from winning the first set 26-24. UIC attempted to close out the match, but Oakland’s Krysteena Davis registered two kills at the end of the set to push the Grizzlies ahead.
During the second set, the Grizzlies came out strong but it was short-lived once setter Marija Borcic stepped to the service line. Borcic went on a four-point serving run, racking up an ace during the run.
She didn’t end that stellar serving run just yet. After going through the rotation, Borcic saw herself back at the line, but this time, she went on a five-point scoring run to increase the Flames’ lead to 19-12 before Oakland’s Davis added another kill to the stat sheet.
Helping Borcic along the way in the second set were again James and Lamb, scoring nine of the team’s 16 kills. With a full team effort, the Flames closed out the second set with a score of 25-17, evening out the match.
After a brief intermission, the third set was underway with UIC taking the lead early. A serving run from Conte helped get the Flames out in front, but the blocking efforts of middle Ali Witt and James kept them in the lead.
Borcic did not want to be left out of all the action. The freshman led the team from the service line yet again. Adding to her already impressive serving day, she went on a six-point run with two of those serves leading to aces.
Oakland’s Sydney Mann returned the favor towards the end of the second set, but it was too late for the Grizzlies. After a kill from Borcic, the match ended with the Flames winning 25-20.
UIC was up two sets to Oakland’s one heading into the fourth set, and the Flames pressed forward in hopes of making this the final set.
The Grizzlies started with the serve during this set, but a kill from middle Tatyana Ndekwe quickly turned it around for the Flames.
During this set, the Grizzlies found ways to stop the hot hand of James, but that did not keep her from racking up four kills during this set.
“I wanted to make sure that I stayed aggressive [when attacking],” James said. “I’m good at being aggressive, so I just kept trying to find the court and not get discouraged when it wasn’t going my way.”
James continued to do just that along with Ndekwe’s three kills and Lamb’s two. Not only did the Flames stay hot on the offense, but their defense was also up to par against the Grizzlies, with Witt and James each registering two blocks.
Oakland attempted to make a comeback towards the end of the match, but their effort fizzled.
Following a challenge from UIC about a touch on the block that went in the Flames’ favor, the match volleyed back and forth in points until Conte served the team ahead of the Grizzlies.
Although Oakland got to 22 points in this set, the Grizzlies served the final ball into the net, leading to UIC’s 25-22 victory in the fourth set.
With 20 kills on the match, James outshined everyone who stepped on the court Friday night. But she shifted the credit to her teammates.
“I think it’s all on my teammates,” James said. “They got a good pass and a good set that put me in a good position to get a kill . Without them, I wouldn’t be ab1e to put the ball down.”
Along with James’ performance, Lamb put up 14 kills and four blocks, and Santiago recorded a double-double with 10 kills and 13 digs. Borcic also led the offensive effort with 40 assists and Conte led the defense with 16 digs.
Many players put up numbers for the Flames but, to head coach Justin Ingram, there are still many aspects to work on for this young team.
“We are really focused on the process right now,” Ingram said. “We feel good about the win, but we know there is another level within the process to make us even a little more of an elite team.”
UIC competed in a matchup against Cleveland State on Saturday, which they won three sets to two sets. The Flames will hit the court at home Friday against Dayton’s Wright State University.