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Sublime Sloetjes drags Dutch to five-set victory

 
Stuttgart, Germany, June 12, 2018 - Lonneke Sloetjes inspired the Netherlands to a gritty five-set victory 3-2 (25-11, 31-29, 16-25, 20-25, 15-10) over Turkey in the FIVB women's Nations League as they closed in on a place in the Final Round. 

This match pitted fourth-placed Turkey against their nearest rivals in the VNL with the Netherlands just one place and two points below Giovanni Guidetti's girls, with both sides having won nine of their 12 matches. It was expected to be tight and the match didn't disappoint with Turkey producing an extraordinary comeback from two sets down only to fall just short against a Dutch side who are beginning to find ways to win when the going gets tough.  

Jamie Morrison's Netherlands, who came back from two sets down to beat Serbia in five last week in Rotterdam, knew they needed two wins this week to guarantee their place in the Final Round, and they've got the first thanks to a polished team performance, orchestrated by the scoring machine Sloetjes, who notched a game-high 24 points, and the imperious skipper Maret Balkestein (11 points) who mixed spikes and consistent serves with tenacious blocks. 

Turkey were hoping for a fourth-straight VNL win after securing a clean sweep in Thailand last week and knew that maximum points against the Dutch would be enough for a spot in the Final Round. But they were off the pace for the first set-and-a-half and couldn't quite recover to win despite a stirring comeback. Hande Baladin top-scored with 17 points while Meliha Ismailoglu (15 points) and setter Gamze Alikaya - who started on the bench - also performed brilliantly, but it wasn't enough.  

The Dutch flew out of the blocks in the opening set and found themselves 10-3 in front under the sublime service of Nicole Koolhaas and the attacking threats of Sloetjes and Anne Buijs. First-choice Turkish setter Alikaya was rested and her replacement Cansu Ozbay was struggling under the wave of Dutch intensity, and Morrison's side were 16-4 ahead by the second technical timeout. Buijs continued her first-set heroics as the Netherlands took it 25-11. Turkey - who handed the Dutch six points from their own errors - looked a shadow of the side they were last week. 

The beginning of the second set wasn't much better for Turkey; 6 consecutive points had the Dutch 8-3 in front at the first technical timeout with Buijs, Balkestein and Sloetjes proving too hot to handle. But once Alikaya was introduced, Turkey grew in confidence. Ismailoglu was also having a greater influence and Turkey somehow brought up a set point thanks to Ebrar Karakurt's spike. The Dutch saved two set points - the second after an incredible rally which Balkestein put away - and then had five of them saved before Sloetjes finally converted their sixth set point to finish it, 31-29.  

Clearly buoyed by their improved second-set performance, Turkey were a different animal in the third and raced into a 10-5 lead. Alikaya was now running the show and getting the better of opposite setter Laura Dijkema, while other Turkish stalwarts Hande Baladin, captain Erdem Dundar and Zehra Gunes, who notched three block points in the match, were beginning to flex their muscles. The Dutch were never really in this set and Turkey wrapped it up 25-16 through Erdem to give themselves hope.  

The Dutch raced into a 6-1 lead at the start of the fourth set. Balkestein's impeccable serving and the tireless work of the Netherlands' blockers - typified by Koolhaas, Sloetjes and Yvon Belien - were snuffing out the Turks with Guidetti, who used to coach the Dutch, looking dejected on the sidelines. But Turkey mounted a fierce response with skipper Erdem leading the charge. Meryem Boz was also beginning to fire and an Ismailoglu ace put Turkey 20-17 in front before Baladin finished things off (25-20) to force a decider.  

The Netherlands lost a five-setter against Italy last week before recovering to go the distance against Serbia, and they drew upon their recent experiences to get themselves over the line. With the scores locked at 8-8, Sloetjes nipped in for a valuable point before a crucial missed spike from Boz put the Dutch on the brink. Belien finished things off on match point (15-10) as Morrison's side picked up a deserved win and two valuable points. Turkey at least come away with a point which their superb effort merits. 


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