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Utah volleyball team loses in regular-season finale, still has hopes of an invitation to NCAA tournament

SALT LAKE CITY — It was not the send-off the Utah volleyball team hoped to give its senior captains.

And because the No. 17 Utes lost to Colorado Friday afternoon at the Huntsman Center, the team will have an anxious 48 hours hoping it was only the regular season finale, not the 2016 season finale.

“You never know,” said Utah head coach Beth Launiere after Utah fell to Colorado in five sets (19-25, 25-16, 20-25, 25-20, 15-13). “I hate saying I think we’re in because you never know.”

The team’s played a tough enough schedule and they’ve been ranked in the top 25 eight weeks, including the past seven, of the season. In fact, the loss to Colorado made for the team’s longest losing streak (three) of the season.

“Obviously, I don’t think the NCAA likes it, but I still think we’re solid,” said senior Tess Sutton, who finished with three digs. “This was just a little bump, and it will be a new journey once (the tournament) starts.”

The team will meet Sunday at 7 p.m. to watch the selection show, and their only hope, besides getting into the tournament, is playing a team they know nothing about.

“Honestly if we have the opportunity to play again, it’s just a new day,” Launiere said. “To me it’s refreshing to play a tournament…An opponent whose never seen us. It’s exciting.”

The reality of playing in the Pac-12, where six teams are currently ranked, is a mixed bag of blessings and challenges.

“This conference, by the end of the second round, everybody knows you,” Launiere said. “Everybody knows your strengths, everyone knows your weaknesses, everyone knows your plays, and it just takes so much mental toughness.”

Utah struggled from the start, but as the Utes have done throughout the season, they've rallied and almost wrestled the game back from a Colorado team looking to finish a disappointing season with a win.

Colorado was led by Alexa Smith, who had 13 kills, Naghede Abu, who added 10 kills, and Katelyn Cuff, who finished with 11 kills. Abu added five kills and Cuff earned a team-high six blocks.

“It’s been a tough second half of the season for us,” said head coach Jesse Mahoney, whose team finished 14-15 (6-13 in conference play). “We’ve been battling some injuries. Things haven’t been going our way. But I’m proud of my team. There hasn’t been a match where I feel like we’ve given up.”

He said the fact that the Buffalo can beat a ranked Utah team on Senior Night on their home court says a lot about the depth of talent in the conference.

“The Pac-12 is a meat-grinder,” he said. “Even the bad teams are really good. The good teams are really, really good, and you have to be ready on every night. It’s a lot of fun.”

Utah was led by junior outside Adora Anae, who earned 23 kills, Carly Trueman, who added 18 kills, and Berkeley Oblad, who had 10 kills. Layton alum Eliza Katoa added 10 kills and five blocks, and middle hitter Tawnee Laufalemana also earned five blocks.

Utah had a better hitting percentage, more assists and more digs. Colorado had more blocks 21-18.

Trueman said the Buffs overcame their slow start by focusing on better defense.

“We were getting a little killed there,” she said. “From there, everything else just kind of falls into place.”

Neither players not coaches are worried about the team, despite the three-match losing streak to finish the season.

“I think it’s going to be shaken off,” Trueman said. “It’s good to start fresh and play a team we’ve never heard of, and I think we’ll go far.”

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