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by Jacob Pickle

Opening Big East play against Connecticut (10-6, 1-0) at Gampel Pavilion on Friday night, Villanova (5-9, 0-1) dropped its first conference match by a final score of 3-1 despite a well-rounded team effort. With set scores of 25-20, 19-25, 25-17 and 25-21, the match itself was much closer than the box score would indicate.

Despite 10 total errors in the opening set, Villanova was primed to start its Big East season with an early lead. Holding a 16-14 advantage, things looked promising for the Wildcats until the Huskies rode a handful of key blocks to an 8-0 rally and an eventual 25-20 first set victory.

The Wildcats responded resoundingly in the second set, tying the match at one set apiece with an impressively efficient 25-19 win. Learning from earlier mistakes, Villanova only committed a single error and led by as many as 10 late in the set. Driven by senior outside hitter Krista Andersen and freshman outside hitter Lauren Carpenter, the Wildcats recorded 13 kills with a .400 hitting percentage. Freshman setter Emma Pettit also had her best set of the night, dishing out 12 of her 26 assists and recording two of her three total blocks.

The third set of the match belonged to the Huskies, who coasted to an 11-point lead and eventually a 25-17 win behind a .289 hitting percentage. The score remained tight through much of the fourth set, but unfortunately for the Wildcats its ending mirrored that of the first.

Taking a 16-12 lead into a Connecticut timeout, Villanova appeared positioned to push the match to a decisive fifth set. The Huskies had plans for an earlier night, however, and netted four consecutive points out of the timeout to help clinch a 3-1 conference win with a fourth set score of 25-21.

Junior defensive specialist Mariah Henley tallied 28 digs to help anchor the Wildcats defensively, while freshman middle blocker Gabby Pethokoukis added a season high seven blocks in the loss.

Days later the team traveled to the Carnesecca Arena in Queens, N.Y., to take on the St. John’s Red Storm (15-3, 2-0). The Red Storm came into the game in solid form, on a four-game winning streak and sitting second among all Big East teams in overall record.  The Wildcats pushed St. Johns to only its second five-set game of the year, but eventually fell to the Red Storm 3-2, with set scores of 17-25, 25-23, 25-15, 16-25 and 15-12.

Villanova opened up the game quickly, rolling to an early first set win with a combination of defensive and serving success. Although the Wildcats notched only eight kills to St. Johns’ 12, they were still able to overpower the Red Storm due in large part to four aces and four blocks. Sophomore defensive specialist Ally Moskitis set the tone early with two of the service aces while Pethokoukis had a part in all four blocks.

St. John’s responded quickly, holding off a late Villanova charge in the second set to clinch a 25-23 set victory and then breaking through with a commanding 25-15 win in the third set.

The Red Storm offense was powered by senior middle blocker Milica Krstojevic and freshman outside hitter Karin Palgutova, with Krstojevic collecting 17 kills and Palgutova finishing with 13. The defense was held together by a strong showing from freshman defensive specialist Shawna-Lei Santos, who finished the night with 32 digs.

Rather than shying away from a surging St. John’s squad, the Wildcats recaptured some of the game’s momentum with a dominating effort of their own in the fourth set. Opening up an early 14-4 lead, they never looked back as Pettit’s nine assists helped force a fifth set with a 16-25 win.

The fifth and final set was as competitive as the rest of the match, with both teams taking points back and forth.

The set was tied at six separate times, with Villanova even coming back to tie things up after finding themselves in a 9-6 deficit. Although the Wildcats battled through the rest of the set, the more experienced Red Storm eventually willed their way to a 15-12 match-clinching win.

Villanova will look to capture its first Big East victory next week when the team returns home to Jake Nevin Fieldhouse tomorrow night for a 7 p.m. matchup with a strong Rutgers squad (14-3, 0-2). The Wildcats will then continue conference play on Sunday  with a 2 p.m. game against Big East-leading Seton Hall (13-1, 2-0).

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