CEDAR FALLS, Iowa -- Creighton put up a valiant fight, but it wasn't enough as the 11th-ranked Northern Iowa volleyball team won its 25th straight match and claimed its 15th all-time title in the State Farm Missouri Valley Conference Tournament championship match on Saturday afternoon. The host Panthers defeated the Bluejays 3-1, winning by scores of 25-18, 25-19, 20-25, 25-20.
Northern Iowa (30-2) earns the MVC's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, while Creighton (20-11) will learn its fate on Sunday when the pairings are announced from 2:00 - 2:30 pm Central on ESPNews. The Bluejay team will gather privately for the selection show.
After trading sideouts to start the match, Northern Iowa went on a 5-0 run that featured a pair of blocks by Shelby Kintzel and Michelle Burow and an ace by Ellie Blankenship. The Panthers would lead by as much as 18-9 before Creighton rallied with four points on Megan Bober's serve. Following a UNI timeout, the Panthers scored three straight points on a Bluejay attack error and two setter dumps from Bre Payton. UNI would win the first set on a Creighton attack error. Creighton hit .137 in the first set, paced by four kills from Heather Thorson, but UNI hit .255 led by four kills by Payton. Blankenship led UNI's defense with 12 digs, as her team outdug Creighton 27-25 for the set.
Creighton got off to a better start in the second, a closely contested affair that featured 11 ties and six lead changes. Creighton led 14-12 before Northern Iowa answered the bell after a timeout with a 6-2 run to go ahead 18-16. Creighton called a pair of timeouts to try to minimize the momentum, but that didn't happen until UNI was ahead 22-17. The Panthers would win the second set, 25-19, on a kill from Payton.
Creighton stormed out of the locker room with a strong start, going ahead 4-0 on Julianne Mandolfo's serve, and extending that to 6-1. UNI got within one point four times, but Creighton answered each occasion. A 4-0 spurt that featured three kills by Alicia Runge gave the Jays its largest lead at 19-13. UNI got within 21-19 before the Jays reeled off four of the final five points to claim the set. A kill from Karisa Almgren forced a fourth set.
UNI never trailed in the fourth set, but Creighton made them work. After the hosts built up a 13-7 lead, Creighton chipped away and fought back. The Jays got within one point on several occasions, including at 21-20 on a Mandolfo ace. Following a timeout, UNI's DeGeest and Burow had successive kills, and Braun then had a solo stuff to get UNI to match point. Burow, a Lincoln, Neb., native, had the kill on match point.
Creighton had 52 kills, four aces, 94 digs and seven blocks while hitting .157. UNI finished with 64 kills, three aces, 103 digs and six blocks.
Creighton's offense was paced by 17 kills from Runge, while Almgren had 10 kills on .273 hitting. The Bluejay defense featured four players with double-figure digs, paced by 28 from Nayka Benitez and 23 from Mandolfo. In addition, Oelke had 15 digs and Brooke Boggs finished with 14. Thorson led CU's block with four stuffs.
UNI featured a balanced attack, led by 14 kills from Burow, while Payton and Kintzel each had 12 kills and DeGeest tallied 11 kills on .500 hitting. Payton had her sixth triple-double of the year and 13th of her career, finishing with 12 kills, 18 digs and 45 assists. Blankenship finished with a match-best 37 digs.
With an RPI of 39 prior to wins over No. 67 Drake and No. 18 Wichita State and today's loss to No.6 Northern Iowa, Creighton figures to be in prime shape to make its first NCAA Tournament appearance since restarting the program in 1994.
NOTES: Nayka Benitez had 28 digs, becoming the ninth player in CU history to reach 1,000 in her career. She finished the afternoon with exactly 1,000 career digs ... Creighton was making its first MVC Tournament finals appearance ... Creighton has been eliminated from the MVC Tournament each of the past six seasons, and is 0-7 all-time vs. the Panthers in league tourney play ... Ellie Blankenship, who had a MVC Tournament record 37 digs in the final, was named MVP. Allie Oelke and Nayka Benitz represented Creighton on that team ... Each of the last four years both teams to play in the MVC Tournament final have made the NCAA Tournament ... The third seed fell to 0-6 all-time in the title match.