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Ole Miss Volleyball needs dominant final stretch after slight skid

This team is legit, but what’s the ceiling?

Petre Thomas - Ole Miss Athletics

Ole Miss volleyball controls its own destiny with nine games left, sitting in a tie for fifth in the Southeastern Conference with an overall record of 14-6. The Rebels are just 3-5 at home but are a blistering 7-1 on the road and perfect 4-0 on neutral courts.

After beginning the year 0-3, head coach Steven McRoberts’ squad rattled off a program-record fourteen straight wins to sit atop the SEC.

Since then, Ole Miss has dropped three straight to Texas A&M, Georgia, and No. 16 Kentucky. Despite the results, each match had its positives and moments to learn from as the final stretch of the season will shape postseason hopes.

Nayo Warnell stays efficient against Texas A&M.

Against the Aggies, the Rebels put together a balanced performance, but couldn’t string together consistent runs deep into sets, and lost a heartbreaker in the fifth.

Ole Miss put together a stellar defensive day, recording 15 total blocks, which was the second-best of the season. Behind the net, senior libero Nicole Purcell, the SEC’s leader in both digs and digs per set, continued to get a touch to anything within a 10-foot radius. She finished with 16 digs in the match, and recorded the 1000th dig of her career. No small feat.

On offense, setter Lauren Bars distributed the ball evenly, and four players finished with nine or more kills. Freshman Anna Bair posted 10, Aubrey Sultemeier had nine, and Emily Stroup recorded a double-double with 14 kills and 13 digs.

Middle blocker Nayo Warnell added 10 kills of her own, and turned in a .529 clip. With her strong day, the senior continued her impressive season and stayed at the top of the SEC in hitting percentage.

Nicole Purcell digs everything at Georgia.

The loss to Georgia snapped a seven-match road win streak, which was the second longest in program history, but came with strong defensive performances.

Stroup tallied double-digit kills for the 16th of 19 games, but only found the floor 11 times. Of the hitters, Sultemeier led the team with a .467 clip. It’s hard to win against a top SEC opponent when your best weapon isn’t connecting on her swings, and the team-high hitting percentage is less than .500.

In efforts to pull the team back, Bars and Purcell had themselves each a great day away from the attack. Bars registered her 10th double-double with 28 assists and 12 digs. Though her hitters may not have found their spots, and Bars may have pushed a few sets, she put the ball out with efficiency.

Bars has been serving up pure butter in her junior season, take note.

Getting Bars in position off of the first touch, Purcell was dominant in the back row. Tying career-high 27 digs, it was her fifth match of the year with 25 digs or more. That performance rans third all-time for a four-set contest in the rally scoring era.

Basically, Purcell is a wizard.

Emily Stroup takes Ole Miss all-time kills lead against Kentucky.

Ole Miss put up a valiant effort, but fell to No. 16 Kentucky 1-3 over the weekend. The Rebels lost the first and the fourth sets 23-25 on late-game Wildcat runs, and the match was closer than the score might indicate.

Bars dished out 33 assists and had 10 digs to record her league-leading 11th double-double of the year, and Purcell dug a team-high 17 attempts.

The biggest storyline came as Stroup became the program’s all-time rally scoring kills leader.

She now has with 1,421 (and counting) in her career, and owns the all-time program record for career kills, single-season kills, and single-match kills.

It’s safe to say that Stroup is the best Rebel to ever do it.

McRoberts and company are now 14-6 on the year, with a lot of talent, a lot of chemistry, and a lot to build on entering the final nine games of the season. Ole Miss will see both Georgia and No. 15 Kentucky again, as well as No. 13 Florida and No. 24 Missouri. The road is not a cake walk, but the team has shown its ability to hang tough.

Sixty-four teams make the NCAA tournament, with an automatic bid given to the conference winners. Should an improbable run to an automatic bid not occur, an at-large bid is a distinct possibility for Ole Miss, if the team can pull some upsets.

In 2018, the SEC was awarded four at-large bids to teams that went 25-5, 24-6, 23-7, and 19-9. Obviously for Ole Miss, 25-5 is out of the question, 24-6 requires a perfect final stretch, and 23-7 is a tall task. 19-9 is even a lot to ask of a team that is not a perennial SEC powerhouse, but it isn’t impossible with this much talent.

Even if the desired record is reached, the fourth at-large bid was awarded to the No. 37 RPI team a year ago, while Ole Miss is currently No. 44. For the team to make the national tournament, a lot needs to happen. But if the NCAA tournament bid does not come, a NIVC invitation (the NIT of volleyball) should be on its way to Oxford.

Ole Miss will travel to Tennessee on Friday, hoping to sweep the season series with the Volunteers and get the final push off to a strong start.

The match will be broadcast on SEC Network + at 5:30pm CT.