Nakhon Ratchasima, Thailand, June 7, 2018 - A heroic performance by Ai Kurogo crushed local dreams as Japan fought back from two sets down to defeat Thailand in a FIVB Volleyball Nations League thriller.
The wing spiker scored a game-high 29 points as Japan claimed a memorable 3-2 (19-25, 20-25, 25-17, 25-19, 22-20) triumph on Thursday to close out phase four action in stunning style. Kurogo was well supported by Yuki Ishii (17 points), while a gallant Thailand was led by Onuma Sittirak's 22 points and Ajcharaporn Kongyot tried hard with 19 points.
It was a memorable result for Japan, who started slowly and looked in deep trouble down by five points late in the fourth before forcing a deciding set. They saved two match points in the fifth before finally closing it out on their sixth attempt to claim a crucial sixth victory in the VNL.
Thailand started on fire before fading as the match wore on but never wavered and provided plenty of cheer for their boisterous fans. However, the heartbreak meant Thailand finished winless over their six-match home stand and continued a losing run against Japan.
Thailand have won just twice in the VNL to be mired near the bottom of the overall rankings but were highly competitive in phase four. The hosts were keen to come out of the gate fast after notoriously slow starts previously and Chatchu-On Moksri got her team off perfectly with a thundering spike to spark the local fans into a frenzy.
However, Japan showcased their own aerial prowess through the leaping Kurogo as the energetic teams traded points in a pulsating opening. Both renowned speedy teams showcased their quickness around the court but the menacing serving of Onuma, including one 99 km/h thunderbolt, proved unplayable and fuelled Thailand to a four-point lead at the first technical timeout.
Buoyed by their frenetic crowd and furious sets, Thailand were on a roll with Chatchu-On and Ajcharaporn dominating in the air as the hosts stormed ahead 15-7. A rattled Japan were unable to stymie the unrelenting attacks as their renowned defence was taken apart by the systematic precision of their increasingly confident opponents.
Thailand were mixing flair with trademark grit highlighted by winning a memorable 28-second exchange punctuated by a towering block from Onuma, who could do no wrong in the opening stanza. Soon enough, Thailand deservedly closed out a dominant stanza to win the opening set for the first time during their fruitless home stand.
Shaking off a lacklustre opening, Japan played with more intent to start the second set to open up an early three-point buffer and momentarily silence the rabid fans. But Chatchu-On quickly got Thailand back into the contest through a stellar serve as Onuma showcased her range of skills with deft touch at the net as points were traded between the teams.
Cunning play by Kanami Tashiro at the net followed by a cross court spike by Ishii ensured Japan were able to match Thailand's high-voltage play as the match tightened during a see-sawing stretch. Four straight points from Thailand restored their advantage heightened by another unplayable brute of a serve from Onuma, who again reached speeds of almost 100km/h.
Well executed sets from Thailand ensured they could breach Japan's best defensive efforts and they claimed the stanza after winning a momentous rally as bedlam ensured from the delighted fans.
With their backs against the wall, Japan raced out to an early lead through Tashiro's strong serve as the visitors attempted to play more aggressively.
An inspired Kurogo lifted her output as Thailand found themselves on the back foot for the first time in the contest as evidenced by Chatchu-On, who played sluggishly to find herself substituted mid-set. A rejuvenated Japan won seven straight points during a dominant stretch to stun the local faithful as Thailand looked more like the team languishing near the foot of the overall standings.
Just when it appeared to be a rout, Thailand dug deep to claw back some respectability but Japan eventually closed it out through a thumping Nana Iwasaka spike as the match was delicately poised.
There was a swirl of anticipation as both teams played cautiously in the fourth set knowing the match had reached a pivotal juncture and Hattaya stepped up with clutch serving to help Thailand gain an 8-5 lead at the first technical timeout. A third straight ace from Hattaya forced a desperate Japan coach Kumi Nakada to call timeout knowing her team was up against it.
A gritty Japan fought back impressively as the standard of play reached new heights and the visitors strung together five straight points with Tashiro dominating on serve. Japan played with more composure and forced a fifth and deciding set after stunningly winning 10 of the final 11 points.
With all to play for, there was unwavering intensity as the teams traded points. Players were putting their bodies on the line - none more so than Risa Shinnabe who copped a blow to the face from a brutal Pleumjit Thinkaow blow. Some brilliant plays from Hattaya and Chatchu-On gave Thailand some breathing space at 10-8 but Kurogo reponded with her own magic as the match continued to be in the balance at 11-11.
A sensational kill block restored Thailand's lead followed by a back court bullet spike from Onuma as the hosts could smell a belated victory. However, Japan had other ideas winning an astounding 29-second rally to tie the scores at 13 apiece and amid the most astounding drama both teams failed to convert numerous match points.
Japan had a slew of chances but repeatedly kept stumbling as the marathon match continued until they finally claimed victory on their sixth attempt to trigger scenes of jubilation - contrasted by pin drop silence from the devastated crowd.
In phase five action next week, Japan travels to Walbrzych and will face hosts Poland, the Dominican Republic and Russia, while Thailand will journey to Eboli to play hosts Italy, Brazil and Belgium.