Liberty came back from a 2-1 deficit, rallying to win a marathon fifth set, 21-19, to down Gardner-Webb, 3-2 (22-25, 25-21, 22-25, 25-18, 21-19) Saturday at Paul Porter Arena.
The Lady Flames (13-9, 8-2 Big South) extended their winning streak to eight matches. Liberty is now 5-1 in Big South matches that have gone five sets. Gardner-Webb falls to 11-14, 1-9 on conference play.
Set five saw as many ties, 16, as the previous four sets combined. Gabrielle Vess made it 14-13 with a kill. Gardner-Webb then rallied ahead, 15-14, before a Vess kill extended the match. Payton Carter served an ace, giving Liberty a 16-15 advantage. Liberty cashed in on its sixth match-point try, as Casey Goodwin and Anna Gragg posted a match-winning combo block.
For the match, Gardner-Webb outhit Liberty, .251-.250, with the Runnin' Bulldogs also leading in digs, 83-68. The Lady Flames led 12-7 in aces and 13-8 in blocks. Liberty's 12 aces were its most since serving up 13 aces at N.C. Central, Aug. 24, 2012.
Leah Clayton scored a match-high 21 kills to go with five blocks, her third straight 20-kill match. She is the first Liberty true freshman with three straight 20-kill matches during the rally-scoring era. Vess scored 16 kills at a .417 pace. Sirena Vorster sent down 12 kills (.478), adding a career-high six aces and six blocks. Gragg recorded 11 kills and six blocks. Anna Willey dished out a season-high 52 assists, good for her fourth straight 50-assist match, while Margaret Latchford collected a match-high 28 digs.
Nicole Celarek led Gardner-Webb with 20 kills, while Taylor Lillard scored 15 kills. Amanda Sahm recorded 36 assists and 14 digs. Emma Milstead registered four aces and 24 digs. Hannah Driscoll scored 11 kills, while Kacy O'Connor collected 14 digs.
Set one saw 12 ties and six lead changes. Liberty led by as many as four, 15-11, following an ace by Vorster. A five-point run put Gardner-Webb ahead, but the Lady Flames fought to take a 22-20 lead. Hannah Driscoll and Taylor Lillard then scored two kills each during the hosts' 5-0 set-clinching rally.
During the opening set, Gardner-Webb outhit Liberty, .286-. 208.
Liberty burst out of the gates in set two, leading 21-14 when Vess scored a kill. Carter gave Liberty a 24-15 lead with an ace. The Runnin' Bulldogs rallied, scoring six straight points, but a Runnin' Bulldog error ended the set, 25-21.
The Lady Flames hit .222 during set two, posting four blocks and four aces, while Gardner-Webb hit .083 with three blocks and three aces. Clayton scored five set-two kills.
The Runnin' Bulldogs took control of the third session, as a kill by Lillard gave them a 19-11 advantage. Trailing, 22-16, Liberty went on an 8-2 run, drawing to within two, 24-22, on a Vorster kill. Lillard sent down a kill, giving Gardner-Webb a 25-22 win and 2-1 match lead.
Gardner-Webb outhit Liberty, .326-.205, in set three, with Celarek scoring seven kills. Clayton countered with five kills for the Lady Flames.
Liberty forced a decisive fifth set with a resounding 25-18 victory during the fourth stanza, during which the Lady Flames held a .303-.189 advantage in hitting percentage.
The Lady Flames will play five out of their remaining six regular-season matches at home, beginning next Tuesday, when Liberty hosts Commonwealth rival Radford at 7 p.m. in the Vines Center.