LYNCHBURG, Virgina (KVIA) -- Ryleigh Whitekettle and Kacia Brown put on all-around dominant performances in the Aggies' semifinal matchup with Florida International on Saturday afternoon. Whitekettle dropped in 15 kills on just 17 swings, good for an .824 hitting percentage. Brown became the first Aggie to drop double-digit blocks in a match this season with 11. The Aggies took down the Panthers in four sets, and moved on to the CUSA Tournament Championship. FIU's season came to a close at 13-19, while NM State improved to 21-9. Waiting for them is nationally-ranked Western Kentucky.
Set-by-set: NM State wins 3-1 (25-15, 23-25, 25-14, 25-20)
The Aggies hit .593 in the first set, with 18 kills and just two errors on 27 attempts. Five different Aggies earned a kill in the first nine points, as NM State pulled ahead 8-1. Ryleigh Whitekettle continued her hot streak, with five kills on as many swings. Kacia Brown poured in four kills and a pair of blocks en route to a ten-point win in the first set.
The Aggies dropped their lone set of the match in the second. Kacia Brown did pour in another three kills and four blocks, while Whitekettle added another three flawless kills, starting the match eight-for-eight. A 9-4 start for the Aggies prompted a Panther timeout, while NM State was hitting .605 as a team at the point. From that point on in the set, FIU's Syra Tacnhin dropped in six kills and an ace, keeping the Panthers hanging around. NM State pulled ahead 22-20 on a Mari Sharp kill, but FIU responded to take five of the next six points. Yasso Amin dropped in back-to-back aces in the run, propelling the Panthers to a narrow 25-23 win.
The two sides traded the first six points before Starr Williams poured in three kills and an ace in an 8-1 run that put the higher seed ahead 11-4. FIU would be unable to cut the lead to any less than five for the rest of the set, and the Aggies pulled even further away towards the end. The set ended on a 9-3 run that included two blocks and a kill from Kacia Brown. Morgan Stewart's second service ace of the season brought forth set point, where the Aggies shortly took a 25-14 victory.
Despite just one tie and no lead changes, the fourth set was deceptively back-and-forth. After a 4-4 tie, the match stayed within a three-point margin for the next 17 points, before Kacia Brown notched a kill and a block solo on back-to-back points. The block prompted a media timeout while the Aggies led 15-11. Brown's hot streak came in the midst of a 4-0 run; the longest by either team in the frame. Later, back-to-back FIU errors gave NM State a 22-17 advantage. The two teams split the last six points, before the match ended in the most fitting way possible; Ryleigh Whitekettle's 15th kill.
Head Coach Mike Jordan, on the victory over FIU: "Really solid performance overall today. We wobbled passing it and made some passive errors in set two that cost us that set. We bounced back well in set three. Hitting .400 as a team in a semifinal match is a big deal. 14 blocks in four sets is a big deal. Playing in a championship game versus a nationally-ranked opponent is a big deal too."
Redshirt junior outside hitter Kacia Brown, on the keys to victory: "One of the biggest keys for us was keeping track of the routes and keeping the communication up. They run a lot of different things, just like we do. Also, we knew we had to play hard, knowing that they're a good team so we couldn't let up or change our energy.
Redshirt junior outside hitter Kacia Brown, on the emotions heading into Championship Sunday: "Pure excitement. We've never been here before, and playing new people, being in a new conference is all just so exciting. We're just excited and ready to play."
Redshirt sophomore outside hitter Ryleigh Whitekettle, on her .824 hitting percentage: "We had a conversation as a team about what we can do to help our teammates and I think that led me to focusing on minimizing errors. I found that's the best way I could come through and help my teammates moving through the season."
Redshirt sophomore outside hitter Ryleigh Whitekettle, on the excitement of tomorrow: "We are very excited for tomorrow. This is what we've been working for all year, and we feel prepared for battle. I'm confident we can win if we execute the way we have this weekend. We just need to find ways to stop their runs and go on a few of our own."
Numbers of Note
- Ryleigh Whitekettle's .824 hitting percentage is the highest in a four-set match by any CUSA individual this season.
- Kacia Brown tallied a career-high 11 blocks in the win. That is the most by an Aggie this season, passing the previous mark that she also set (nine, twice).
- The Aggies out-killed the Panthers by 20 (57-37), averaging five more kills per set than the team across the net.
- The team's .402 hitting percentage is their second-highest in a single match this season, just short of their .425 outing against Miami (OH). Today's mark was the highest in a four set match by the Aggies this season, and the second-most by a CUSA member in 2023.
- Mari Sharp led the team with 13 digs and seven kills. She recently became the first Aggie since Tatyana Battle to surpass 500 career kills and 500 career digs.
The CUSA Tournament Championship takes place tomorrow, Sunday, Nov. 19 from Liberty Arena in Lynchburg, Va. The Aggies will take on Western Kentucky at 10:00 AM MT (12:00 PM ET). The Hilltoppers took down UTEP in five sets on Saturday. The match between WKU and NM State will be streamed live on ESPN+, and available to follow via StatBroadcast. Those links are attached to this page, and can be found at nmstatesports.com.