GRANITE CITY — They fell apart at the end of the first set, but the O'Fallon Panthers quickly got it back together again.
The Panthers rallied to beat the Edwardsville Tigers 15-25, 25-21, 25-18 Tuesday in the Class 4A Normal West Volleyball Sectional.
"(The Tigers) wanted it so bad, they were just kicking our butts the first game," O'Fallon coach Melissa Massey said. "I told my girls, 'You're not going to let them make you look this bad. I don't care what you have to do, but you better push for every single point this next two games.'
"I feel like they completely left it all on the floor. They just played so hard."
The Panthers were led by Nzingha Clarke with 16 kills and Aubrey Keilbach with 11 kills and 18 digs.
"We know we didn't try our best in the first game, so we were like, 'What are we doing? We have to pull it together,"' Clarke said. "We went out the second game all determined. We're like, 'We can beat them.' Everybody looks at Edwardsville like the big stars, and we're like, 'We can beat them.' We were just determined."
The Panthers (29-9) advance to play the Normal Community Ironmen (23-14) at 7 p.m. Thursday in the championship game of the Normal West Sectional.
The Ironmen knocked off Rock Island 25-23, 25-13 Tuesday.
The Panthers have never won a sectional.
"I will cry," Massy said. "I almost cried right here, but I'm going to save my tears for Thursday."
The Tigers end their season at 23-15.
Lynsey Wright had nine kills and four blocks, Camrey Saye and Korrine Croft each had seven kills for the Tigers.
Libero Katie Shashack had 25 digs.
"You have to give credit to O'Fallon," Edwardsville coach Jami Parker said. "They did a great job tonight. They were ready to play. Their defense was flying all over the place, getting things up. They didn't make any errors. They just played cleaner than we did."
In the first set, the Tigers led 17-15 when they went on an eight-point run.
A kill by Wright started the run and Carly Thebeau served up seven straight points.
Game point came on a tip by Autumn Harris.
Despite the way the first set ended, the Panthers didn't fold in the second set.
"I think when you get into these situations, it shows you have tough your team is mentally to come back from behind," Massey said.
The score was tied at 19-19 in the second set when 6-foot-1 Clarke took over.
Clarke had six kills and stuff block as the Panthers stayed alive by winning the set.
"It was the Nzingha show, that's what we said," Massey said. "She literally played phenomenal. I am so, so proud of her. She is just coming into her own."
Parker said the Tigers were aware of Clarke's ability to dominate at the net.
"That was one of the things we walked in the pregame scouting report," Parker said. "We needed to control the middles just a little bit and try to serve the middles out. We got down the stretch in that second game and we started tipping and roll (shots) instead of swinging. Those are easy balls to transition back in and get the middle back in the offense. Clarke did a beautiful job tonight. She was definitely a huge factor in the match."
The Panthers were up 20-11 before they committed their first error in the third set.
By comparison, the Tigers had 13 errors at that point.
"We always talk about how the team with the least unforced errors is going to win," Massey said.
Clarke was on the bench waiting to rotate back into the match when the Panthers went on a 10-3 run.
Anna Strake had a kill and well-placed tip to highight the surge.
"I was like, 'When I go back in, we are definitely winning,"' Clarke said.
The Tigers got within 23-18 on a kill by Clare Wasmuth.
A kill by Strake and a kill by Clarke enabled the Panthers to close out the match and avenge a 25-20, 25-20 loss to the Tigers in Southwestern Conference play.
Anne Britton had 15 assists and Elle Moeller had 13 assists for the Panthers.
Just as they did in a win over Belleville West in the championship match of the Collinsville Regional, the Panthers played strong defense with Keilbach and sophomore libero Renae Moeller leading the way.
"The defense was ... just plain out of their minds," Massey said. "Renae is a sophomore and she has stepped up her game and stepped into this crazy big role and has done a great job."
Contact reporter Steve Korte at email@example.com or 239-2522.