With the tension having reached an almost palpable level and the Utes staring at a potentially monumental momentum swing that they’d have been hard-pressed to overcome, senior outside hitter Adora Anae provided the rallying cry.
After winning the first two sets, Utah dropped the third by double digits and trailed 22-18 in the fourth when coach Beth Launiere called timeout. As the team broke its huddle, Anae screamed, “We’re still dancing.”
The Utes followed the lead of Anae, a four-year starter and the program’s all-time kills leader, as well as senior middle blocker Tawnee Luafalemana and senior outside hitter Carly Trueman on their way to a four-set win, 25-23, 25-19, 13-25 and 27-25 in the second round of the NCAA Volleyball Tournament in front of an announced 2,077 in Jon M. Huntsman Center on Friday night.
“We talked a lot going into the match about being mentally tough and that they were going to throw a lot at us,” Launiere said. “I thought we did an extremely good job of that. We did talk about that in the timeout a lot, who are going to be the great competitors right now.”
The entire complexion of the match could have changed if the Boilermakers (23-10) held on to win the fourth set. They held a 22-18 lead and needed just three points to force a fifth set. They were one point away with the score 24-22 when Anae (27 kills, 12 digs) and Trueman (10 kills) spiked back-to-back kills to tie the score.
“I was like we’re winning this for sure because the way we walked off the court and the way we responded, the way we talked before and said ‘championship mindset,’ we weren’t thinking elsewhere but forward,” Anae said of their play late in the fourth set. “Our team showed some mental toughness in that situation.”
Launiere showed confidence in Trueman by putting her back into the lineup after she’d struggled to convert on her attack attempts. She posted a .091 hit percentage on her attacks throughout the match, but she came through with crucial kills in the fourth set.
Trueman added another kill to put the Utes (24-9) ahead 25-24, but an attack error tied it at 25. Freshman Dani Barton’s smash into the back corner put the Utes ahead 26-25 and an attack error by Boilermakers setter Ashley Evans wrapped up the match and set the Utes bench sprinting onto the court in celebration.
“I knew that we were going to come back and I knew that we had each other’s backs in that time that they were up,” Luafalemana said.
Luafalemana played a pivotal role in the Utes’ first-set win. Not only did she record six kills, but she had an outstanding .750 hitting percentage and her success opened up attack opportunities as Purdue geared up to stop Luafalemana and the Utes used her as a decoy to set up counterattacks off similar actions throughout the match.
Anae posted a hit percentage of .367 on her attacks, while Luafalemana hit at a .385 clip.
“They were every bit as good as I was afraid they might be coming out here,” Purdue coach Dave Shondell said of Utah. “They made us really have to work to contain them.”
The Utes advance to the Sweet 16 after a first-round exit last year. They’ll likely play in a regional at either Stanford or Texas, depending on the outcome of other matches this weekend.