Down 2-0 to the Bulldogs, the Bucs won the next two sets to force a decisive fifth but quickly fell behind 10-1. They teased a most improbable comeback by taking the next six points but that was a close as they got in a 25-23, 25-22, 23-25, 17-25, 15-8 loss.
“Our girls played tough against a Samford team with a lot of veteran players,” said Benavia Jenkins, who wrapped up her first season as ETSU’s coach. “We fell in the end in that fifth set, but I’m very proud of our girls. They expected us to finish fifth (in the league), but here we are and playing a fifth set in a championship match.
“Our girls have a lot of grit, and when Kaela Massey came on the court, she changed the dynamics on the team.”
Massey, a senior middle blocker, led ETSU with 18 kills, and Sara Esposito had 17. Both made the All-Southern Conference tournament team.
Olivia Cunningham posted a double-double of 11 kills and 11 digs with four blocks and Lauren Hatch totaled 11 kills and seven digs for ETSU (25-6). Emily Arnold finished with 43 assists and 14 digs and libero Marija Popovic totaled 22 digs and 13 assists.
“We weren’t going to roll over and let them beat us in three,” Massey said. “We knew we had more fight in us and skill to show than we did the first two sets. Coming out the third and fourth sets, we really tried to hit it home.”
Kelsi Hobbs had 26 kills and Lauren Deaton 20 for the Bulldogs (24-5), who earned a bid to the NCAA tournament.
“I feel very fortunate because ETSU is an exceptional team,” Samford coach Keylor Chan said. “We were able to do the small things. Now that we’ve made it, we want to win a round in the (NCAA) tournament. No one from the SoCon has ever done it, but we want to make it happen. When you have special players like Kelsi Hobbs, who steps up in these kind of situations, you have a chance.”