The two-seeded Utah Valley University volleyball team pulled out a hard-fought 3-2 victory over No. 3 CSU Bakersfield in the WAC Tournament semifinal round on Friday evening in Las Cruces to punch its ticket to the WAC title match for the first time in program history (22-25, 25-22, 25-17, 20-25, 15-12). UVU now advances to face the No. 5 UT Rio Grande Valley Vaqueros on Saturday evening in the championship match after UTRGV knocked off the host and regular-season champion New Mexico States Aggies in Friday's other semifinal contest.
The victory marks UVU's (16-13, 10-4 WAC) first-ever WAC Tournament win and a school-record eighth five-set victory of the season.
"I don't know what it is about these five sets. You've got to give credit to Bakersfield, but I'm really, really proud of our girls. They did a tremendous job of composing themselves, executing the plan and being disciplined there at the end," 2016 WAC Coach of the Year Sam Atoa said. "The girls also did a nice job of controlling the basic things of the game there in that fifth set. We made one less costly error than they did. And when you are playing such a tight match like this, those can come into play and we were able to take advantage of that."
With the match deadlocked at two sets apiece, the Wolverines took an early 5-3 fifth-set advantage following three-straight points. After a CSUB (14-15, 10-4 WAC) point, UVU responded with a Kiahna Vernon kill followed by a 'Runner attack error to take a 7-4 lead. Bakersfield later pulled to within one at 8-7, but UVU responded with kills from Vernon and Lexi Thompson coupled with a pair of CSUB attack errors and a Brighton Taylor and Thompson block assist to take a 13-7 lead. Following three-straight Roadrunner points, the Wolverines took a 14-10 match-point advantage thanks to a Bakersfield service error. After back-to-back CSUB points, Utah Valley put the marathon match away on a final kill from Thompson.
Three Wolverines (16-13, 10-4 WAC) reached double figures in kills in Friday's semifinal contest, led by Vernon's team-high 14. Second team all-conference performer Thompson was next with 11, while first team all-league selection Madison Dennison rounded out the group with 10. Dennison also tied for the team lead in blocks with fellow middle blocker Taylor with six, while Sierra Starley put up a match-high 49 assists and Nakisha Willden chipped in a contest-high 25 digs. All-freshmen team selection Izzie Hinton too had a nice performance with nine kills and a solid .333 hitting percentage.
In a tightly-contested opening set that featured 13 ties and six lead changes, the Wolverines managed to take an early 10-8 lead following a 5-1 run. The Roadrunners quickly responded with a 4-1 run of their own to take a 12-11 advantage, but back answered UVU with another 5-1 spurt to take a 16-13 lead. Dennison led the Utah Valley run with a kill and a block. CSUB once again immediately countered back with a 4-1 run to deadlock the score at 17-17. With the Wolverines later holding to a late 22-21 advantage, Bakersfield reeled off a crucial 4-0 spurt to take the opener, 25-22. The WAC Player of the Year Carol Grasso paced the final CSUB rally with a kill and a block.
The momentum stayed with the 'Runners early in the second set, as they jumped out to a quick 8-3 lead. Utah Valley responded with a 4-1 run to pull within two at 9-7, but back answered CSUB with a trio of consecutive points to take a 12-7 advantage. With Bakersfield later holding to a 16-13 lead, UVU managed to score three of the next four points to pull within one at 17-16. The Wolverines then took their first lead of the set following a Vernon kill, a Taylor and Alexis Davies block assist, a CSUB ball handling error and a Hinton kill to take a 21-19 lead. With UVU ahead late at 23-22, the Wolverines managed to pull the set out thanks to back-to-back clutch points on a Davies kill and a Dennison and Starley block to tie the match at 1-1. Vernon and Taylor paced the Wolverines in the set with five kills and three blocks, respectively.
UVU was the first to pull ahead following the intermission break, as it took a quick 7-3 third-set lead following a 6-1 run. CSU Bakersfield aided the early Wolverine run by committing five attack errors during the spurt. The Wolverines added to their lead from there, as they stretched it to nine, at 13-4, following six unanswered points. Vernon paced the UVU rally with a pair of kills and a block. Bakersfield later pulled to within five at 22-17, but Utah Valley responded by scoring the final three points including a match-point kill from Taylor to take the third set, 25-17, and a 2-1 lead in the match. UVU outhit the 'Runners, .321 to .000, en route to earning the third-set victory.
Bakersfield responded early in the fourth set by jumping out to a 6-3 advantage, but back countered Utah Valley by scoring five of the next six points to take an 8-7 lead of its own. CSUB then immediately responded by reeling off nine-straight points to take a 16-8 lead. With the 'Runners later holding to an 18-10 advantage, UVU responded with a 5-1 run to pull within four at 19-15. Thompson capped the Wolverine rally with back-to-back-to-back kills. The Utah Valley comeback continued as the Wolverines later pulled to within one, at 21-20, following another 5-1 spurt. The Roadrunners managed to put a stop to the run, however, by scoring the four unanswered points to take the set, 25-20, and force a decisive fifth set.
The victory marked Utah Valley's third of the season over Bakersfield. All three were of the full five-set variety too, as UVU enters Saturday's title match with an 8-3 record on the year in five-set thrillers. Utah Valley has also won six-straight matches and 12 of its last 14.
Despite suffering teh setback, CSUB's WAC Player of the Year Grasso capped her senior season with her 16th double-double of the year with a match-high 22 kills and 12 digs.
Saturday evening's WAC title match begins at 7 p.m. MT, at NMSU's Pan American Center and will be streamed live on the WAC Digital Network. Utah Valley, which will be vying for its inaugural trip to the NCAA Tournament, split a pair of meetings on the year with UTRGV with each team winning on its respective home court.
James Warnick is an assistant sports information director at Utah Valley University. For more information about Wolverine athletics, visit WolverineGreen.com.