Big Sky Conference standings
SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- In a battle of the top two teams in the Big Sky Conference's South Division, it was Sacramento State that played extremely well in a convincing three-set sweep of Northern Arizona (25-15, 25-18, 25-19) on Thursday evening at Colberg Court.
With the victory, Sacramento State (14-11, 8-3) moves to within one game of Northern Arizona (19-5, 9-2) and the Lumberjacks' lead atop the South Division. The Hornets, who lost to NAU earlier this season in Flagstaff, also snapped the Lumberjacks' five-match winning streak. Tonight marked the first time all season that Northern Arizona has been swept in three sets as the Hornets were never seriously challenged.
Sacramento State is 3-0 on its season-high tying four-match homestand, and has won 12 straight matches against Big Sky opposition at home. That includes a 4-0 mark this year (all 3-set sweeps), and 8-0 last season. The Hornets' last loss to a conference foe inside the Nest came in five sets in the 2014 regular season finale against Southern Utah. Sacramento State also continued its dominance of Northern Arizona at home as the Hornets are 22-1 when playing the Lumberjacks on Colberg Court.
In addition, Sacramento State now owns the tiebreaker over Northern Arizona should the two teams finish the regular season with the same conference record. The Hornets and Lumberjacks split the season series with both teams sweeping on their home floor. However, Sacramento State owns a larger points differential in those sets, making tonight's convincing win even bigger. With just five matches remaining in the regular season (four of which will come at home for the Hornets), the winner of the Big Sky's regular season championship will host the conference tournament on Nov. 17-19.
Sacramento State will conclude its four-match homestand in a Saturday matinee as the Hornets host Southern Utah at 1 p.m.
The Hornets played well in every aspect of the game tonight, especially on defense where the team accumulated 79 digs, good for a massive average of 26.3 digs per set. Sacramento State seemingly dug everything in sight as four different Hornets had at least 13 digs despite the match lasting just three sets. That included libero Lexie Skalbeck (21), outside hitters Shannon Boyle (15) and Mikaela Nocetti (13), and setter Kennedy Kurtz (14). The Hornets limited Northern Arizona to a .195 hitting percentage and just 33 kills.
Meanwhile, Sacramento State had 20 more kills than NAU (53-33), hit .302, and also had five aces and 5.0 team blocks. The Hornets never trailed in either the first or second sets, and their largest deficit of the evening was two points (2-0) early in the third set.
"We are playing very well right now, and Northern Arizona is a strong team that beat us pretty good earlier in the season," Sacramento State head coach Ruben Volta said. "We certainly had motivation after our loss in Flagstaff, and we seemed to do everything right tonight. We served tough, played good defense, attacked well, passed well, and while we didn't block a ton of balls, we were effective enough in slowing balls down enough for our defense to pick up.
"Our defense led the way, we had four players with double figures in digs and we kept balls from hitting the floor. That certainly was a big factor in tonight's win, and I thought Kennedy (Kurtz) distributed the ball well and kept Northern Arizona off balance."
Boyle posted her 13th double-double of the season with 14 kills, 15 digs and a .282 hitting percentage while fellow outside hitter Nocetti notched her fifth double-double with 14 kills and 13 digs. Cannon was incredible on the right side, finishing with 14 kills, six digs and a .481 hitting percentage. The third-year senior had just one error in 27 attacks while also tacking on a pair of aces.
Kurtz ran a crisp offense and was also impressive on the defensive end, finishing with 46 assists, 14 digs and two blocks. Middle blocker Courtney Dietrich had seven kills, three blocks and a match-best .500 hitting percentage while also raising her season hitting percentage to .360. Middle blocker Brie Gathright had three kills and two blocks, and Skyler Takeda added a pair of digs and two aces.
Skalbeck's 21 digs were a huge total for a three-set match and the fourth-year senior continues to lead the Big Sky with an average of 4.98 digs per set. She has been especially good against conference opposition, averaging a ridiculous 5.76 digs per set vs. league foes.
Northern Arizona did not have a player finish with more than eight kills as Sydney Lema led the way with eight kills and nine digs while Lauren Jacobsen had seven kills and 15 digs.
After Saturday afternoon's match against Southern Utah, the Hornets' final four matches of the regular season will come over the next two weeks. That includes next Thursday on the road at Montana State before closing things with three straight home contests against Portland State (Nov. 5), Idaho State (Nov. 10) and Weber State (Nov. 12).
NOTES -- Tonight was Breast Cancer Awareness Night, and former Hornet volleyball players Alison Gahr-Osterhout and Shannon Roland-Airoso were honorary captains and stood with the team during pregame introductions.