Leonardo Paludo closed his career with 20 kills
April 24, 2008
UNIVERSITY PARK, PA - NJIT's Highlanders did just about everything except win Thursday afternoon against George Mason, ranked 11th in the latest national men's volleyball poll. In the end, however, it was the Patriots who defeated the Highlanders, 3-2, in the first semifinal match of the Eastern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association Playoff Tournament played in Rec Hall on the campus of Penn State.
After two games, the Highlanders appeared on their way to a dream matchup in Saturday night's championship match against host Penn State, ranked first in the nation.
NJIT dominated its nationally-ranked foe, George Mason, in Thursday's first game, winning, 30-21. And the Highlanders played another strong game to take the second frame, 30-25.
However, George Mason, which handed Penn State its only loss to date during the regular season, proceeded to demonstrate why it had achieved its lofty national ranking with a 30-26 game three win and a thorough 30-20 win in the fourth set to level the match at two games apiece.
Much to NJIT's credit, the Highlanders rebounded from the lopsided game four loss and battled Mason to 8-8 and 9-9 ties before the Patriots put together a 4-0 run to take a 13-9 lead that would prove to be insurmountable.
With Penn State heavily favored to win Thursday's other semifinal against eighth-seeded NYU, George Mason is 20-7 heading for its rubber match with the Nittany Lions (during the regular season each team won its home match against the other).
NJIT, which advanced as far as the EIVA playoff semifinals for the first time since 2000, completes its season at 13-14.
The Highlanders had four men with double figures in the kills column, led by senior Leonardo Paludo's 20. All-East second team junior Amobi Armstrong finished with 14 kills and seniors Eduardo Welter and Greg Wagner, like Paludo, playing their final career matches, produced 12 kills apiece. Wagner finished with 12 kills and just one error in 23 swings for an impressive .478 hitting percentage.
Paludo served three of NJIT's four aces and Correa led the defense on the floor with 12 digs. Senior libero Chris Siddayao added nine digs for the Highlanders.
NJIT, which was beaten by a combined 32.5-to-9 in team blocks in its two 3-0 regular season losses to George Mason, held its own at the net on Thursday. Taking on the EIVA's top blocking team, the Highlanders had nine team blocks to match their two-match regular season total against the Patriots, who finished with 13 blocks in the playoff showdown with NJIT.
George Mason's junior opposite Kyle Gramit was the man of the match, generating 29.5 points--28 on a match-high 28 kills. Junior Hudson Bates added 18 kills--12 after his team fell behind in games, 0-2. And Mark Burik also had 14 kills.
Mason coach Fred Chao changed setters with his team struggling in the early going and sub Brandon Joyner finished with 32 assists in three games, while starter Ryan Kwiatkowski had 30 assists in three games.
Sophomore Brandon McLaughlin notched three service aces, leading the Patriots to a 6-4 edge over the Highlanders in that category.
Bates was Mason's digs leader with 10, while 6-foot-9 senior RJ Goubeaux had a match-best eight blocks (all assisted). Joyner, the 6-foot-4 setter, added six block assists.
It would be hard to imagine NJIT playing better than it did in winning game one, 30-21. The Highlanders broke a 5-5 tie with a 5-0 run and never let Mason get closer than three points for the rest of the game.
Utilizing attack adjustments McNeil had made from breaking down match video, the Highlanders had a team hitting percentage of .500 in the first game on 16 kills, three errors and 26 attempts. Paludo had five kills on seven swings with no errors and Welter added four kills, as Correa triggered the offense with 13 assists.
NJIT's momentum carried over into the second frame, as the Highlanders broke a 3-3 tie and never trailed again. Leading by as many as six points at 18-12, NJIT sailed home for a 30-25 win paced by seven kills from Paludo and six from Armstrong.
It didn't show immediately, but the pendulum was slowly swinging in favor of the Patriots, who twice cut NJIT's lead to three at 27-24 and 28-25 before the Highlanders closed out the game two win.
The holes in Mason's blocks became harder and harder for NJIT to find as the teams went toe to toe in game three. Tied at 20-20, the Patriots finally gained the upper hand for good with a 2-0 spurt that included a kill by Gramit and a Highlander attack error. Gramit paced his team to the 30-26 win with six kills.
Back on their heels for the first time in the match, the Highlanders started game four poorly and fell behind early, 11-5. Down 20-10, NJIT fought Mason even the rest of the way, 10-10, but it resulted in a 30-20 loss.
The deciding game was played on even terms, with neither team leading by more than a point en route to the 9-9 tie. NJIT finally went behind on a service error and two attacks into what became GMU block points, before Joyner topped the 4-0 Patriot run with a kill.
Down four, the Highlanders twice fought back to within two points, but George Mason got match point on its third try with a kill into the back row by Bates. Paludo dug the hard attack, but he couldn't control it and the ball caromed off his hands, back across the net and out of bounds.
The Highlanders, who were promoted to the EIVA's top power-rated Tait Division this season, will remain in the Tait for a second straight season in 2009.