SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — Creighton’s historic run through the Missouri Valley Conference volleyball season is one win away from another milestone.
Behind 33 combined kills from Melanie Jereb and Leah McNary, the Bluejays advanced to the Valley tournament championship with a 25-21, 20-25, 25-19, 25-21 win against fifth-seeded Illinois State on Friday night at Hammons Student Center.
The victory improved Creighton to 27-3 and extended its school-record winning streak to 15 matches.
The top-seeded Bluejays face No. 3 seed Wichita State, which beat No. 2 seed Northern Iowa 25-19, 22-25, 25-19, 25-20 in the other semifinal, in Saturday’s final at 7 p.m.
A win would give Creighton its first Valley tournament title to go with the program’s first regular-season title won earlier this month. It would also give the Bluejays their first automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. Creighton was an at-large pick in 2010 — its first appearance in the tournament.
Northern Iowa is the three-time defending Valley tournament champion. Wichita State took Creighton to five sets and had match point against the Bluejays on Nov. 16.
“Our goal as a team is to get that automatic bid (to the NCAA tournament),” Creighton coach Kirsten Bernthal Booth said. “We know we’ll have a battle in front of us.”
After Creighton didn’t record a block in the first two sets, the top blocking team in the Valley had five stuffs in the third set. The Bluejays held the Redbirds to one kill while racing to a 13-5 lead.
Illinois State made it 23-19, but Creighton ended the set with a kill from McNary and a combined block from Michelle Sicner and Heather Thorson.
“In sets three and four, we really locked in,” Booth said. “We did get a lot of touches early in the match, but the big thing for us was to get a block up because they cover so well.”
Illinois State had trouble covering McNary and Jereb.
McNary had 13 of her match-high 18 kills in the final two sets, while Jereb finished with 15 kills on a match-high .368 hitting. No other Bluejay reached double figures in kills.
“I thought Jereb had a great match,” Redbirds coach Melissa Myers said. “Our plan was to stop (Kelli) Browning (Creighton’s second-leading hitter), and we did a great job on her. But what (Megan) Bober does so well is find the hot hand. I thought she went to the pins and got her teammates involved, and she’s a great leader.”
Bober, who was named the Valley player of the year on Thursday, finished with 39 set assists and 14 digs to go with nine kills. Browning, the Valley’s defensive player of the year, was held to seven kills on .095 hitting.
“I thought we just had to come out with intensity because ISU is such a great team,” said Jereb, a freshman from Cary, Ill.
Brooklyn Hlafka led the Redbirds (18-12) with 16 kills on .312 hitting. Valley freshman of the year Ashley Rosch added 10 kills and 13 digs, and LeighAnn Hranka finished with nine kills. The Redbirds hit .064 combined in the third and fourth sets while Creighton hit .225 during that stretch.
“We made a few too many errors in the first and fourth sets,” Myers said. “(Creighton) is the best blocking team in the conference, and they made some good adjustments. They stepped up, and we got beat.”
The Valley championship appearance is Creighton’s second in the last three seasons.
“It’s unreal. This is the first time through the conference for me and a few of my teammates, so to be able to do it with our upperclassmen is amazing,” Jereb said. “We’re not really (nervous). We know the teams, we’ve played them before, and we’ll watch them tonight.
“If we come out and do what we’re capable of doing, we’ll be fine.”