PROVO — The No. 4-seeded BYU women's volleyball team perhaps answered a lot of questions as to where the team is on Saturday with a straight-set win over Utah (25-16, 25-21, 25-18) in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
Some were questioning whether the Cougars were equal to a No. 4 seeding following a late-season injury to opposite hitter McKenna Miller and then a loss to Loyola Marymount in straight sets to end the regular season. A straight set win over the likes of Stony Brook in the first round probably didn't provide many answers, but taking a win in straight sets over a red-hot Utah team in dominating fashion should.
"I'm really proud of our team tonight. I feel they played a really great match," said BYU coach Heather Olmstead. "We're excited to advance in the tournament, and I thought the crowd was just fantastic with the energy."
As for the advancement, it marks the seventh-straight year that the Cougars have reached the round of 16 in the NCAA tournament. With regard to the crowd, it was 5,183 strong, the second-largest ever to attend a women's volleyball match with Olmstead's team giving all BYU fans every reason to be as loud as ever throughout the match.
Roni Jones-Perry again led the way for the Cougars, scoring a match-high 20 kills on a .471 hitting percentage while providing seven digs and three block assists, but those phenomenal stats certainly weren't exclusive to the senior captain. Other standouts included freshman middle blocker Heather Gneiting and her 12 kills on a .688 hitting percentage, and sophomore Kennedy Eschenberg scoring seven kills on a .500 clip, also from the middle position.
"Our middles were phenomenal," Olmstead said. "Heather and Kennedy did a really good job. Lyndie (Haddock-Eppich) was able to find them in transition, and she just kept feeding them."
As for Haddock-Eppich, she assisted 45 of BYU's points while scoring eight digs while providing one of the better plays you'll see on a volleyball court late in the first set.
With BYU rolling to a 21-14 lead, Haddock-Eppich had one of her attempts blocked right back at her, to which she gathered herself immediately to jump back and get a touch over the net, scoring a point that left the home fans cheering as loud as at any point during the match.
"I saw it go behind me, and I was like, 'I'm going to hit this,' and I fell and just got back up again," Haddock-Eppich said.
The play came on the heels of a 7-0 run midway through the set that turned a 10-11 deficit into a 17-11 lead, after which the Utes never really threatened for the remainder. Jones-Perry was good throughout but set the tone with seven kills in the first set on a .778 hitting percentage with BYU out-hitting Utah .484 to .143.
The second set followed suit, although the Utes closed the gap a bit late with BYU ultimately taking a 25-21 set win. The set saw the Cougars start to exploit their big advantage in the middle during the set with Gneiting getting through all five of her kill attempts to frustrate Utah considerably.
"We didn't do a very good job of it," said Utah coach Beth Launiere of effectively counteracting the Cougars' advantage in the middle. "We never really had a great answer for them in the middle."
BYU did have several answers for Utah's attack, however, evidenced by a team total of 45 digs to Utah's 28.
"Our defense was phenomenal," Olmstead said. "Heading by Mary (Lake) back there communicating with people and just telling them what to do. I thought we were in the zone defensively. … We had a good game plan knowing where (Utah) likes to go, and we executed it."
The Cougars continued to roll in the third set, finishing off the Utes with a 25-18 set win to advance to the round of 16 where they'll take on Florida on Friday at the Smith Fieldhouse.