ARLINGTON, Va. -
Senior co-captains Ariana Mankus and Francine Vasquez once again paced the Army offense as the Black Knights hung on for a 3-1 win over rival Air Force in the final match of the Service Academy Challenge at the Pentagon Saturday evening. Army improved to 6-4 on the season and outlasted the Falcons in a marathon 31-29 fourth set to clinch the victory.
"This was a special win tonight," said sixth-year head coach Alma Kovaci following the victory. "To be renewing a series with Air Force in the Pentagon was very special. Give credit to Air Force and its staff. They were as tough as tough gets. After losing earlier today to a very good Denver team, was so proud of the way we responded tonight. Some players struggled today, but it was those players in particular who came up huge in that fourth set with everything on the line."
Mankus topped Army with 14 kills, while Vasquez added 13 in the effort. Mankus completed the double-double with 19 digs. Sophomore setter Mary Vaccaro also added a double-double with 42 assists to go with 12 digs. Junior libero D.J. Phee anchored the Black Knights' defense with a team-high 24 digs. Sophomore middle blocker Molly McDonald led Army with five total blocks, including a solo block for the Black Knights' match-clinching point (31) in the fourth set.
The Black Knights finished the tournament with a 2-1 mark, registering wins over The Citadel (3-0) and Air Force. Army's lone less came in a 3-0 decision to Denver earlier on Saturday.
Army took the opening set, 25-21, but watched Air Force take a 2-1 lead with 25-18 and 26-24 wins in sets two and three, respectively. The Black Knights and Falcons played through 14 ties in the final set, but it was Army's Vaccaro serving for match point with a 30-29 lead. It was then that McDonald produced her biggest block of the weekend, stopping Air Force's Taylor Parker in the middle to clinch the match.
The Black Knights opened the match with a seemingly comfortable 14-7 lead midway through the first set. Army pushed its lead to 22-14 not long after, but the Falcons still had a run in them. Air Force out-scored Army 7-3 down the stretch, but the damage had already been done.
The second set belonged to Air Force much of the way. The Falcons took a commanding 17-6 lead on an Army miscue. This time it was Army's turn to make a late push, but the Black Knights' 12-8 run was too late as an error ended the set.
Tied at 1-1, the match heated up with a back-and-forth third set that entertained 11 ties and seven lead changes throughout. Neither team led by more than five points (Army, 12-7) the entire way. A Phee service ace late in the action gave the Black Knights a 24-22 lead. Army would surrender two additional points, but Vasquez came up huge with a pair of points via a kill (25) and service ace (26) to seal the win.
The epic fourth set began with the Falcons taking an 11-8 lead on an Army error. Neither team led by more than three points the rest of the set. With both teams fighting point-for-point during the closing plays of the match, Army's key players stepped up. Trailing 24-22 with Air Force serving for set-point, Army broke a timeout huddle with "as one." The result was two quick points to level the score at 24-all on a Mankus service ace. Five additional ties ensued as both teams had a chance to get the win. Tied at 29-29, Air Force was whistled for a ball handling error and Vaccaro returned to the service line for the Black Knights. One trip over the net and McDonald stuffed Parker for the win.
Air Force's Cami Richan led all players with 19 kills. She was the only Falcon to register double-digit kills.
Army returns to Gillis Field House next weekend to host the West Point Challenge. Virginia Commonwealth, Albany and Sacred Heart will visit the banks of the Hudson for the four-team event, which marks the final tune-up before the Black Knights begin Patriot League play.
Match Notes: Junior Megan Forbes celebrated her birthday on Saturday ... former West Point Commandant of Cadets Brig. Gen. William Rapp was in attendance for the Army-Air Force match ... all officials for the tournament were former servicemen and women.