CEDAR FALLS -- On a night when Northern Iowa's traditional winning formula of scrappy defense and crisp digs wasn't always reliable, the Panthers turned to their attack to remain alone atop the Missouri Valley Conference volleyball standings.
UNI's tandem of outside hitters Karlie Taylor and Jaydlin Seehase turned multiple out of system attacks into kills as they put together their most efficient match of the season during a sweep of Evansville, 25-22, 25-21, 25-21, Monday night inside the McLeod Center.
Taylor finished with 20 kills and just three attack errors on 38 swings for a .447 hitting efficiency, while Seehase tallied 11 kills with two errors on 16 attempts for a .565 clip. Setter Rachel Koop recorded 39 assists, as she had to work hard for a UNI team that held a 52-37 advantage in kills.
"Just the decision-making on their part is so much better," UNI head coach Bobbi Petersen said, addressing her outside attackers' ability to produce out of challenging situations. "J.J. (Seehase) is reaching so high. Karlie has so many different shots and understands the difference between trying to get a kill, just keeping it in play or stressing out the defense. I'm really proud of those two.
"Rachel did a really good job of getting them the ball in good situations, too. I'm really impressed with out of system attack percentages tonight."
As a team, UNI (13-6, 7-0 MVC) hit .364 -- its second-highest efficiency of the season -- to defeat an Evansville squad (7-14, 1-7) that made just 11 attack errors and hit .234, snapping a string of three consecutive opponents the Panthers had held under .200.
Rachel Tam, a hard-hitting outside hitter from Hong Kong, China, was among the key cogs in a Purple Aces rotation that includes seven international students. She tallied 14 kills, and Evansville hit much better than the .129 attack percentage it had in conference play entering the match.
Petersen felt her defense was often exposed as the Purple Aces hit a clean .438 in the second set, and she challenged the players entering the third stanza.
"We have the ability to have a better first contact," UNI's coach noted. "Tonight it wasn't just in serve receive, I felt even in defense there were some times where we could have got a better touch on the ball, either putting Rachel in a better position, or allowing Rachel to be the one that contacted the ball instead of another player.
"We played OK tonight, but I think our team would agree that there were some things we would have liked to have done better."
UNI led by as many as eight points, 18-10, in set one before Evansville rallied late and pulled within two after dodging a pair of set points. Taylor tooled the block to end that frame.
In set two, the Panthers hit .586 to counter Evansville's .438 efficiency. Freshman Inga Rotto and Taylor each came up with kills after the visitors cut their deficit to 22-20 and 23-21 as UNI maintained its edge.
Neither team led by more than two points in set three until Seehase tallied back-to-back kills to help the Panthers gain separation late, 23-20.
With each team playing its third match in four days, this contest became a battle of wills.
"I think we adjusted pretty well, but I think all of our bodies are feeling it right now -- the three games in four days," Taylor said. "Honestly, I've got to give credit to our sets -- and not only Rachel's sets -- the back row, when they were out of system balls, they were putting up really great balls for me to take swings at."
While UNI has a trip to Missouri State and last-place Southern Illinois remaining, the Panthers are in position to complete a perfect run through the first half of league play. Reflecting on Monday's match, Petersen feels there's still room to grow.
"Our motto is just to get a little bit better every day," Petersen said. "It takes a lot of hard work to get a little bit better every day. That includes the matches and our practice opportunities."