PROVO — The No. 10-ranked BYU women's volleyball team overcame a horrendous start to sweep by UNLV (25-23, 25-21, 21-12) on Saturday and advance to the round of 16 in the NCAA Tournament. BYU didn't lose a set in the first two rounds of the tournament, punching its ticket to the final 16 for the fifth straight year, but doing as much perhaps didn't come as easy as the final scores would indicate, particularly against the Rebels.
Despite entering Saturday's match as clear favorites, having swept UNLV earlier in the year, the Cougars found themselves down 9-1 in front of a stunned Smith Fieldhouse crowd in the first set. But some key adjustments made by BYU coach Heather Olmstead, coupled with a positive attitude from the players, worked to turn the tables.
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Notable adjustments came with inserting junior Alohi Robins-Hardy to play at setter and focusing on setting the right side and the middle, as opposed to the left. The resolve of BYU players and coaches was not to panic but maintain focus.
"We just wanted to focus on the next touch and figure out how we could get point-by-point, and just back into the set," Olmstead said. "So good things started happening. The crowd gave us some momentum and we started making some great plays."
The comeback didn't come suddenly, but by methodically chipping away at the Rebels' lead with the Cougars finally catching the Rebels at 16-16, and then forging ahead for the first time at 20-19. The teams battled from there before sophomore Veronica Jones-Perry ended the set with a kill that glanced off a UNLV player and out-of-bounds.
Setting Jones-Perry up was again Robins-Hardy, who finished with a team-leading 46 assists while jump-starting her teammates with her somewhat unique demeanor.
"Alohi's personality is just really calm. She's just laid back and she's just a fantastic player," appraised senior Amy Boswell. "She just brings that energy — and it's a calmer energy — but she's just laid back, and it's so fun."
Boswell contributed 14 kills in the win, with Jones-Perry leading the team for the second straight night, with 17. Jones-Perry and Boswell were largely the beneficiary of the Rebels taking away the left side, where BYU's leader in kills, freshman McKenna Miller, struggled to get going.
Other key contributors included Danelle Parady, who finished with seven kills, and Lacy Haddock, who finished with eight, along with Mary Lake and Makenna Santiago, who both contributed heavily from the back line.
"We have 18-19 girls that are ready to step in at any time," Olmstead said. "They practice hard for those moments, so when their moment comes, we just ask that they're ready. … I think we have a roster of competitive girls who want to get on the court."
As for UNLV, it never fully recovered from squandering the big early lead, although putting up a good fight in the second set before losing the third set by a wide margin. The Rebels were led by Bree Hammel and her team-leading 12 kills.
Although ultimately unhappy with the result, UNLV left Saturday's match encouraged with its overall play.
"I love how my team responded to being in (the tournament)," said UNLV coach Cindy Fredrick. "Some teams with their first time in it — they just get overwhelmed and blown out that first round. I love that fact that (my players) didn't do that."
With the win BYU advances to the round of 16, where it will take on No. 4-seeded Texas at Austin this Friday.
For the Cougar players and coaches, they expressed a lot of gratitude for their fans who gave them a boost on Saturday and for the entire season.
"We feel lucky that we get to play in front of such great and knowledgeable fans that love the sport of volleyball," Olmstead said. "So, we just really appreciate all their time and effort to support us. It's been great."