Hilltoppers end FIU’s season in semifinal sweep

Photo by Luis Carducci

Photo by Luis Carducci

By: Eduardo Almaguer / Staff Writer

Jovana Bjelica hit a ball that sailed out of bounds for the final point of her team’s semifinal match against Western Kentucky, officially closing the book on FIU’s season.

After both teams shook hands under the nets, senior Andrea Lakovic could not hold back her tears any longer. She broke out into sobs as her teammates hugged her, effectively saying goodbye to their longtime teammate.

Lakovic was just one of four Panthers who played her final match in an FIU uniform after being swept by WKU (30-3), eliminating the Panthers from the Sun Belt Conference Tournament, 25-22, 25-12, 25-19. It was the second year in a row that the Hilltoppers have knocked FIU (20-10) out of the tournament in the second round.

Not a single Panther had more than eight kills. Of those who qualified for hitting percentage with five kills, Lakovic had the highest with a paltry .208 mark. Setter Jessica Egan, who left the arena with tears in her eyes almost immediately following the match, recorded only 25 assists. Suffice to say, WKU shut down every facet of FIU’s game.

“They are a top 25 [team] for a reason,” said head coach Daniejla Tomic of WKU. “They are number one in conference for a reason.”

The most competitive set of the match was the first, as the biggest lead was only four points. Down 11-9, the Panthers battled back to take a 12-11 lead on two WKU errors and a Lakovic kill. The fierce tug of war continued until the Hilltoppers pulled away at 18-14 thanks in part to a ball-handling error by Egan.

Though FIU cut the lead down to 24-22 after a kill by junior Marija Prsa, Melanie Stutsman returned the favor and captured the set for WKU.

After that, FIU suffered its most embarrassing set of the tournament as WKU jumped out to a mammoth 18-5 lead.

“It was a punch in the stomach. We didn’t know how to respond back from losing the first set,” said Gonzalez.

“We were overwhelmed,” added a puffy-eyed Egan who had her usual bubble demeanor replaced by a somber, glum one. “We beat ourselves.”

The deficit was much too large for the Panthers to overcome, as they lost 25-12.

With WKU leading 20-13 in the third set, the crowd at the U.S Century Bank Arena knew what was over the horizon.

The Panthers, however, were determined to give the Hilltoppers one final challenge. They rattled off five consecutive points to bring the score to 20-18, as the crowd roared in excitement and WKU scrambled to a timeout.

The excitement was short-lived though, as Bjelica committed an error to end the match and lose the set 25-19.

With the win, WKU advanced to the championship match for the second consecutive year. FIU simply watched from the stands.

“There was no question who was the better team tonight,” said Tomic.

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