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BYU women's volleyball: Cougars finish strong vs. Florida Gators, advance to NCAA regional finals

PROVO — Right after Roni Jones-Perry's final kill of the evening went down, she looked over at fellow senior teammate Lyndie Haddock-Eppich and celebrated the breaking through of a wall both have experienced since both joined the program as freshmen.

"I looked at Lyndie and it was a feeling just like, 'we freaking did it,'" Jones-Perry shared in the postgame press conference following BYU's four-set win over Florida (23-25, 25-13, 25-17, 25-19) Friday night at the Smith Fieldhouse. "So it was a really awesome moment in the team room and the court right after the match. It just feels really good."

The win puts the Cougars (30-1) into the round of eight of the NCAA championship, after making it to the round of 16 three straight years only to be ousted by the slimmest of margins. Next up is a match against No. 5 seed Texas on Saturday, the same team that eliminated BYU a season ago in the round of 16.

As for Friday's win over Florida, it didn't start exactly as planned.

The Gators presented a sizable front line that perhaps took the Cougars a bit off guard to begin things, resulting in a 5-0 lead for Florida right out of the gate. The Smith Fieldhouse crowd was left a bit stunned and nervous, although every BYU player on the court maintained smiles as if they knew something no one else in the building did at the time.

Turns out they did.

"Our team just does a really good job and our coaches do of having a present mindset," said BYU libero Mary Lake. "So it's always the next ball and sulking does nothing good for the next ball."

Indeed the Cougars battled back and ultimately tied Florida at 15-15 in that first set as the home crowd again got loud as the tide started to turn. But Florida rebounded and battled to take a 25-23 first set win, although BYU coach Heather Olmstead and her team took a lot of momentum out of how the Cougars closed in on the lead.

"We loved the first set," Olmstead said. "I thought we stayed in that set up until the end ... there was nothing wrong. We loved the way we played. We wanted to clean it up in the second set. ...There's a little bit of time to get used to a team, and I think it may have taken us a little bit longer than normal, but we figured it out and we didn't look back after we did."

Not looking back is exactly what the Cougars did for the remainder of the match.

They dominated the play throughout the second set, suddenly making Florida's superior-sized players obsolete with some deft serving and receiving of whatever the Gators threw at them. They rolled to a 25-13 second set win and kept a solid foot on the gas to take the third and fourth sets by scores of 25-17 and 25-19, respectively.

Leading the way for the Cougars was again Jones-Perry who scored a match-high 17 kills, but also contributed nine digs, two service aces and a couple of blocks at the net.

Both Madelyn Robinson and Lacy Haddock filled in well at the opposite hitter spot, scoring 10 and eight kills, respectively, with the middle combo of sophomore Kennedy Eschenberg and freshman Heather Gneiting again providing a big advantage. On the back row seniors Danelle Stetler and Sydnie Martindale again proved effective along with Lake to get everyone in prime positions to attack.

"Hats off to BYU. That's a very good team," said Florida coach Mary Wise. "They played exceptionally well tonight. After the first set BYU became very stingy with the points they gave away. You can see why they are where they are."

As for Olmstead, Friday's match simply told the same story told throughout the year regarding her team, although telling that same story on the venue of Friday's match made it a bit more special.

"It was just such a great match that will go down in history as one of the greatest matches to be played here," Olmstead said. "It was really fun to be a part of and I didn't even touch the ball, so I'm sure (the players) had way more fun than me, but I'm proud of our team for being resilient."

The Cougars will play their final match of the year at the Smith Fieldhouse Saturday night at 6 p.m. MST in hopes of advancing toward the ultimate goal of a national championship.