FAYETTEVILLE – Behind the first career double-double performance from Kendall Cleveland and 24 kills by Jasmine Norton, the University of Arkansas volleyball team rallied past Georgia in five sets (25-12, 24-26, 21-25, 25-13, 15-10) Friday evening at Barnhill Arena in the Southeastern Conference opener. Defensively, the Razorbacks out-blocked the league’s second-best blocking team, 12.5-5.0, and libero Brooke Fournier tallied a match-high 23 digs.
"I saw a hungry team," head coach Robert Pulliza said. "I saw a team excited to play with each other and that’s exciting to see them playing at that level. It’s just the beginning (of SEC play) and we have to be consistent throughout. We’ve Auburn on Sunday so now we have to put this behind us and get ready for a very good team."
Cleveland finished the match with 18 kills and 12 digs, both career-high figures. Janeliss Torres-Lopez added seven kills and continued her strong play at the net with eight total blocks. Making the first start of her career, Raymariely Santos dished out 50 assists as Arkansas notched a .316 hitting percentage. In addition to her attack numbers, Norton tied a career high with six aces.
In a race to 15 in the fifth set, Arkansas (7-5, 1-0 SEC) jumped out to a 7-1 lead behind the serves of Santos and Norton. The Hogs led, 8-3, at the switch after a kill by Kelli Stipanovich. There was little left in doubt through the remainder of the game as Arkansas pushed its lead to as high as eight points. On the team’s third set point, Norton put away the final ball to send the Razorbacks to victory.
The win marks Arkansas’ third rally from a 2-1 deficit with similar wins against Oral Roberts and Chattanooga. The Razorbacks improve to 3-2 in five-set match this season. In games four and five, Arkansas hit .481 and .308, respectively, to complete the comeback.
"This was a huge win for us, especially coming off the weekend we had (at Middle Tennessee Invitational)," Cleveland said. "We really wanted to go after it today. We needed to start fresh and go 1-0, and that’s exactly what we did."
Trailing by three early in the opening game, the Razorbacks reeled off seven of the next eight points to take a 10-7 lead and force the first timeout of the match out of Georgia head coach Joel McCartney. The Bulldogs pulled to within two but a tandem block by Cleveland and Torres-Lopez capped a five-point run to extend Arkansas’ lead. The home team had its largest lead of the set, 24-11, and closed out the game on a UGA service error.
Behind just two attack errors in the first set, the Razorbacks posted a .438 hitting percentage with Cleveland leading the way with seven kills. Norton and Stipanovich each added three kills while Santos had 10 assists.
Game two was a tighter affair but Georgia (8-4, 0-1) took a late four-point lead, 20-16, and Pulliza called a timeout to break the momentum. The Razorbacks responded to pull even at 22 after a service ace by Fournier. Down set point, Arkansas turned to Norton and the sophomore found the floor to keep her team alive. On the Bulldogs’ second set point, however, a shot by Stipanovich landed wide and the teams went into the break tied at one set apiece.
The third set was a battle between Norton and Georgia’s Briana Bahr. Norton had six of the Razorbacks’ nine kills during the game but the visitors hit .324 in the set to take control of the action. The Bulldogs led by as much as 10 but a late surge got Arkansas back in the game. Down a handful of set points, the home team rattled off four points in a row but UGA took the one-set advantage with a block.
The Razorbacks forced the fifth, and decisive, game with a strong offensive effort in game four. Arkansas had a four-point lead, 11-7, when Georgia took its first timeout of the set. The visitors got no closer than three as the Razorbacks stretched their lead to double digits on a kill by Torres-Lopez. After consecutive attack errors by UGA, Arkansas arrived at set point and closed it out with a block by Torres-Lopez and Santos.
The Razorbacks return to the court Sunday to face Auburn to close out the first weekend of conference play. First serve of the Western Division matchup is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. at Barnhill Arena. In the all-time series against the Tigers, Arkansas owns a 29-4 advantage. A live stream, interactive blog and live stats will be available at ArkansasRazorbacks.com.