Nanjing, China, July 1, 2018 - The USA were crowned the first-ever FIVB Volleyball Nations League champions on Sunday night after an epic 3-2 (17-25, 25-22, 26-28, 25-15, 15-7) victory over a resilient Turkey, and an inspired 20-point performance from Kimberly Hill.
Befitting a tournament that has provided so many thrills, the VNL final threw up one for the ages as the momentum switched and both teams dug deep into their energy reserves. But it was the reigning world champions who prevailed after a match that stretched over two hours, with wing spiker Hill's tally including 16 kills, a stuff and three super aces.
It was an inspired piece of coaching from the American brains trust to throw Hill into the fray from the substitutes' bench in the first set - as Turkey gained the early ascendency. She combined brilliantly with the Americans' standout in the finals in wing spiker Michelle Bartsch-Hackley (18 points) and with her captain Jordan Larson as they settled the USA's nerves when they fell behind - twice - and then powered them to glory. Larson herself finished with 15 points.
The Turks were gallant in defeat and had their own shining lights in both opposite spiker Meryem Boz and middle blocker Eda Erdem Dündar, who scored 20 points apiece.
Turkey had set the VNL alight with their run to the finals - having only secured their spot (at the expense of Italy) in the final six with a win over Germany in their second last group match. After being defeated 3-2 by the USA in their opening finals match, Turkey rebounded for a 3-2 win over Serbia that squeaked them into the final four, before they defeated Brazil 3-0 on Saturday night to make it through to the ultimate match.
The Turks then came out flying in the first set on Sunday night, led by Boz, who seems to thrive on the big occasion. Spare a thought for Boz. While there has been much focus on international volleyball's teenagers and 20-somethings during the VNL, the 30-year-old showed that "veterans" know a thing or two about the game, too.
Boz was leading scorer (21 points) in Turkey's crucial win over Germany in the prelims, she shone again against Brazil in the semifinals (leading with 14 points) - and then she led by example again in Sunday's final.
But the night ultimately belonged to the Americans - and indeed to their inspirational captain in Larson, another veteran. At 31, the wing spiker has also seen and done it all across an illustrious career and still has so much to give to the sport. Larson provided the impetus for the USA on Sunday - carrying the scoring load for the Americans when fortunes weren't going their way. Her personal tally, in the end, helped make all the difference, too, and showcased all her skills, from kills (12), to stuffs (one) and aces (two).
Coach Karch Kiraly had the USA primed as the form team of the VNL finals. They'd come in with the best record (13-2) from preliminary play and then had that win over Turkey, followed by a 3-0 result against Serbia before beat hosts China 3-1 in the semis. In the end there was no denying the world champions as they wrote themselves into the VNL history books.