PROVO — The UNLV volleyball team knew the rest of the world might see it as underdogs in a first round NCAA tournament game against No. 22-ranked Utah.
In fact, coaches and players even found extra inspiration in an article written about the tournament saying the third-place Mountain West team didn’t even belong in the field of 64 teams.
“Anybody who's ever followed any part of my career says I make a living off of being an underdog,” said coach Cindy Fredrick after the Rebels upset Utah in four sets — 27-25, 25-21, 19-25, 25-20. “We laughed and said, a lot of people didn’t necessarily feel we belonged here. And we felt like we did from the get go.”
She said the doubts about whether the team even deserved an invite only fueled the team as UNLV prepared to take on the Pac-12’s fifth-place team in Utah.
“We take those things personally,” she said. “These guys fight everyday. … We felt like, having seen them on tape and everything, we felt like we could play with them. Any time you beat a Pac-12 team, you feel pretty good.”
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The Rebels' plan was pretty simple — focus defensively on junior outside hitter Adroa Anae, while playing as aggressively as they could offensively. UNLV’s defense was about as tough as it gets with the team earning 22 blocks to Utah’s 12.
Led by senior Bree Hammel, who earned 18 kills and six blocks, and junior middle Elsa Descamps, who added seven kills and six blocks, the Rebels made it extremely difficult for the Utes to put balls away.
“They definitely played great defense,” Utah coach Beth Launiere said. “There were a lot of balls that we thought were down, and they weren’t.”
Launiere said the match was well-played by both teams. The Utes were led by Anae, who earned 21 kills, while Carly Trueman added 15 kills and Tawnee Luafalemana added 10 kills.
“I thought (UNLV) played extremely well,” Launiere said. “That’s the absolute first thing I have to say. I thought they played a great match, a low error match. They made plays. I thought we made a lot of plays as well, but there were a lot of little things that caught us.”
The Rebels kept Utah guessing throughout the match, while playing relentless defense.
“They did a lot of things that posed problems for us defensively,” Launiere said, “and we struggled to make stops.”
For just the fifth time this season, Utah played a team that utilized a front-row setter in junior Alexis Patterson. She had six kills and kept the Utah defense guessing because of her ability to attack.
“That’s a big one,” Launiere said of the trouble it posed. “We knew that was going to be an issue. … She definitely had us off-balance, no doubt about it. She’s very talented.”
The Utes were disappointed, but said they were already talking about how to take positives from the loss as they only lose two players to graduation.
“I think we had a really good season from where we started to where we finished,” Anae said. “To take from this, we just need to improve as volleyball players individually and as a team.”