Provo • BYU fought back from an opening set loss and outlasted the Utes 17-25, 25-22, 25-23, 25-23 to advance to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA volleyball tournament. The Cougars, seeded 11th in the tourney, will take on sixth-seeded Purdue in the next round which will be played in Pittsburgh.
“I’m just proud of our team for the way we gritted out that win. It was tough, we had adversity losing that first set,” BYU coach Heather Olmstead said. “We could have buckled, but we didn’t. We rose up and played three great sets after that.”
BYU (30-1), whose only loss was at Pitt, was led by Erin Livingston’s 13 kills while Taylen Ballard-Nixon added 12.
Led by 18 kills from Dani Drews and 17 more from fellow outside hitter Madelyn Robinson, Utah (22-9) took the first set thanks largely to an 11-2 run that gave the Utes a 15-9 lead.
But the host Cougars began to clamp down on the Utah strong side weapons in the middle of the second set.
“We knew if we could just get some touches and slow them down. You know, Drews was playing well and hadn’t had any errors for quite a while,” Olmstead said. “We finally got in her face and slowed her down.”
“I remember their middles starting to track on the outside toward me and Madi. That was an adjustment I definitely noticed,” said Drews, who ended a stellar career for the Utes that included All-Pac-12 honors for four years. “It’s definitely not fun to end on a loss, but the way that we fought, we were never down-and-out regardless of the score.”
The Utes’ attack seemed out-of-sorts in the third set as the visitors fell behind 16-9 after six straight points off the serve of BYU’s Tayler Tausinga Hifo.
Although Utah closed the gap to a single point, at 24-23, Cougars’ middle Heather Gneiting scored a kill from the right to finish off that set and send the match to the fourth.
It was a back-and-forth affair on the scoreboard for much of the fourth set with Brigham Young leading 22-20 late. Utah then scored three straight points, including a big block by Robinson, to go up by a point.
But the Cougars rebounded right away, with a kill from Ballard-Nixon followed by a block by Gneiting to go up 24-23. Miscommunication by the Utes on the next point ended with a hitting error to end the contest.
“This was, for a lot of us seniors, our last match in the fieldhouse and ... what a moment to be playing Utah and have it be close — have it be a fight,” said BYU’s Kennedy Eschenberg, who had nine kills.
“We’re just really good at problem-solving,” Cougars’ outside hitter Kenzie Korber said. “They were in our face and put us in a battle and we just continued to problem solve.”
It’ll be the fifth trip to the Sweet 16 for BYU under Olmstead, who is hoping to take the Cougars into the Final Four for the first time since 2018. For Utah coach Beth Launiere, it was the culmination of her 32nd year leading the Utes.
“I’m still going strong,” Launiere said. “Don’t count me out.”