Stuttgart, Germany, June 14, 2018 - Hande Baladin highlighted Turkey's impressive depth with a spectacular performance against China to complete the pool phase of the FIVB Volleyball Nations League on Thursday.
Having claimed the last remaining finals berth after beating Germany on Wednesday, Turkey refreshed their starting line-up and Baladin seized the opportunity with a game-high 24 points to be the standout in her team's 3-1 (28-26, 25-21, 20-25, 25-20) triumph.
Without scoring machine Meryem Boz and captain Eda Erdem Dundar, Turkey (11-4) received strong efforts from their fringe players, including Ebrar Karakurt (15 points) and Beyza Arici (9 points).
China attempted to engineer a brave comeback after being two sets down but their fortunes turned when Xiangyu Gong injured an ankle midway through the fourth set and was forced off the court. She had starred with 18 points, while Yingying Li (12 points) battled hard.
Even though there was little riding on the result, the contest still loomed as an important affair with both teams aiming to get a psychological edge ahead of the final phase.
China started quickly through an ace from Yingying and all-round brilliance from Fang Duan, who followed up an early imperious block with a thunderous strike. Turkey settled through wing spiker Karakurt, who was making the most of her starting role with an energetic performance, as they reeled off five of six points to enjoy a handy 13-9 edge.
China were struggling to execute their sets - in a notable contrast to their confident opponents - but they were staying afloat due to a dynamic effort from Yingying who was seemingly everywhere on the court. Consecutive imposing blocks from Yuanyuan Wang - who was engaged in a riveting battle with Baladin -levelled the scores as the standard lifted with Turkey regaining the lead after winning a lengthy rally punctuated by a Baladin spike.
A couple of misfires from Baladin late in the set proved costly but she redeemed herself with a clutch ace as Turkey eventually closed out a hard-fought 33-minute first set on their third attempt to continue China's first set struggles in Stuttgart.
China started the second set strongly to skip out to an early three-point lead and were aided by a sloppy Turkey, including a gaffe on serve from Zehra Gunes. A high-flying Gong was finishing off well worked sets but Turkey stormed back through probing serving from Arici as they reeled off five straight points to lead 10-9.
Turkey's stellar serving continued to mesmerise with Gunes joining in on the act to help her team take a 16-12 lead at the second technical timeout. Despite China's best efforts, Turkey had all the answers with Karakurt's thundering blows able to pierce the normally impregnable Chinese frontline. Fittingly, a leaping Baladin punctuated Turkey's momentum as they sealed the second set to take firm control of the contest.
Turkey tried to run away with it early in the third stanza to finish the deal in straight sets but China wouldn't roll over as points were traded by the teams.
Captain Xinyue Yuan gamely attempting to rally her team testament to her piercing screams - which echoed notably inside the sparse Porsche Arena - every time China won a point. Spectacular trademark blows from Yingying ensured China had the edge but - continuing the match's trend - Turkey fought back with Meliha Ismailoglu producing a couple of timely spikes.
However, China held their nerve with quality blocking to win the third set and breathe life into the contest.
China's momentum continued in the fourth set through cunning serving from an inspired Yuan as Turkey started to unravel with a slew of errors. A deft flick from setter Linyu Diao was indicative of the change of fortunes between the teams as China pulled away to a handy 11-7 advantage.
With their grip on the contest loosened, Turkey dug deep with five straight points fuelled by menacing serving from Gunes and desperation from Baladin, who continued to excel. An ankle injury to Gong forced her off and dented China's momentum but they bravely hung on in a determined effort to stretch the match to the distance.
The standard lifted and was marked by rallies filled with desperation but clutch serving from Ismailoglu proved timely for Turkey who claimed their first victory over China since 2012.
Turkey and China, who have automatically qualified for the final as the host country, will compete in the finals in Nanjing starting on June 27.