Provo • Longtime rivals BYU and Utah could be headed toward a second-round collision in the NCAA Women’s Volleyball Tournament this Saturday, but first must get past first-round matches on Friday against Stony Brook and Denver, respectively.
The No. 1-ranked Cougars feared that Tuesday’s surprising loss to Loyola Marymount, their first defeat of the season, would cost them a top seed in the NCAA tournament.
But those fears turned out to be unfounded Sunday as BYU (27-1) earned a No. 1 seed from the NCAA Selection Committee.
The No. 1 seed means the Cougars, the overall fourth seed, will host the third and fourth rounds of the tournament if they survive the first weekend at Smith Fieldhouse.
“You never know what the committee is going to decide,” BYU coach Heather Olmstead said on the selection show. “They have a really tough job. We are thrilled. We are excited. We like the schedule we put together, obviously our nonconference schedule and then our conference schedule. … We thought that whatever the committee decided is what we were going to go with.”
If BYU (27-1) beats Stony Brook (21-8) and Utah (18-13) downs Denver (27-2) in Friday’s doubleheader, the rivals will meet Saturday at Smith Fieldhouse.
The Utes outlasted Denver in five sets in August at the Huntsman Center, winning the fifth set 16-14. The Pioneers went unbeaten for nearly three months, before losing to South Dakota in five sets in the final match of the Summit League tournament in Denver.
“I can’t even start to imagine they’re remotely the same team now, and I know we aren’t,” said Ute coach Beth Launiere, noting she’ll review that tape from August, but will focus more on the Pioneers’ recent matches.
As for her own team, the Utes succeeded with “a growth mindset,” Launiere said, with individual improvement enabling them to fight through the challenging Pac-12 schedule.
Utah (18-13) went 5-1 to finish Pac-12 play with a 10-10 record, good for a three-way tie for sixth place. The Utes won their last three matches, including a sweep of No. 15 USC on the road Wednesday. Utah then beat Colorado in four sets at home Friday, joining the Buffaloes in the tie for sixth in a rewarding season that validated what Ute coaches and administrators like to say: Any team that ranks in the middle tier of the Pac-12 usually is a national tournament qualifier.
Utah made lineup changes during the season in search of the right combination, “and we found it at the end,” Launiere said. “We just knew that this group had to grow and get better, and we just kept teaching.
BYU swept Utah by scores of 25-20, 25-14 and 25-17 on Sept. 13 in Provo, but the Cougars were at full strength back then.
Star outside hitter McKenna Miller sustained a season-ending ACL injury during a 3-0 win over Santa Clara on Nov. 8. The Cougars defeated San Francisco, Saint Mary’s and Pacific in her absence, but clearly were not as powerful and struggled offensively in the 3-0 loss to LMU.
“McKenna was such a big part of our team, but we’ve got a lot of girls who were ready to step up and play,” Olmstead said. “We think the strength of our team is our team.”
Stanford (28-1) is the overall top seed, its only loss coming to BYU early in the season in Provo. Minnesota and Illinois are the other top seeds.
“What a tremendous season [BYU] had,” said ESPNU volleyball analyst Nell Fortner. “BYU is a very tough place to play, so anybody going into their house is going to have to overcome a very loud and raucous crowd.”
The Utes are led by sophomore Dani Drews, who broke school records for kills in each of the last two matches (based on the number of sets). The former Dani Barton is the sister of Ute football players Cody and Jackson Barton, who will be playing against Washington in Friday’s Pac-12 championship game at Santa Clara, Calif.
Only 10 schools have won an NCAA title, and no woman has ever coached a team to the championship. The semifinals and finals are Dec. 13 and Dec. 15 in Minneapolis, Minn.
NCAA volleyball tournament
First-round matches, Friday at BYU’s Smith Fieldhouse.
4 p.m. • Utah (18-13) vs. Denver (27-2)
7 p.m. • BYU (27-1) vs. Stony Brook (21-8)
Second round • Saturday, 7 p.m.