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BYU volleyball falls to Purdue in heartbreaking fashion in Sweet 16

In a hard-fought match, the Cougars were one point away from pulling off the upset and advancing to the Elite Eight

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BYU and Purdue play in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA women’s volleyball tournament on Thursday, Dec. 9, 2021, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

BYU and Purdue play in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA women’s volleyball tournament on Thursday, Dec. 9, 2021, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Purdue won the match three sets to two.

BYU Photo

One point.

Up 14-10 against No. 6-seed Purdue in the fifth and deciding set of its Sweet 16 match Thursday in Pittsburgh, 11th-seeded BYU needed just a single point to pull off the upset and advance to the Elite Eight.

The Boilermakers battled back to tie things up at 14, though, and then the two sides fought before Purdue eventually won the match with a fifth-set victory by a score of 18-16.

“We had a chance to win the match,” BYU coach Heather Olmstead said. “We’re just all about executing the best we can and playing the best we can, and we couldn’t finish it off when it mattered and we needed to.”

BYU jumped out to an early 5-1 lead in the set, but the Boilermakers came back to tie things up at 7.

The Cougars again pulled away for that 14-10 lead, but Purdue rode two straight Jena Otec service aces to get back in it before picking up the win.

“I’m super disappointed for this group,” Olmstead said. “There’s not much more you could ask for in this group to give ourselves a chance to advance, and (we) just couldn’t finish it.”

Thursday’s match marked the first meeting between the Cougars and the Boilermakers since 2015 — a match that resulted in a BYU sweep.

This one was much more evenly matched than six years ago, as Purdue needed all five sets to snap BYU’s 23-match win streak.

Purdue began the first set with few challenges, dominating its way to a 25-12 win, never trailing.

The Boilermakers hit well over .300 in stark contrast to the Cougars’ abysmal -.179 hitting percentage.

BYU returned the favor in the second set though, needing little time to forget its nightmarish start and take the set 25-16.

The Cougars got their first lead of the match during a 10-0 run that put them ahead by seven and never looked back, staying in front of a surprised Boilermakers squad the rest of the way to tie the match 1-1.

“(Purdue) came back down to earth a little bit,” Olmstead said. “We got our serve going. We got a little bit of our block going, some defense behind the block.

“They started playing a little bit worse and (came) back to earth. I think it was just ebbs and flows, which is volleyball.”

The Cougars won a much closer third set 25-21, pulling away down the stretch. Heather Gneiting gave BYU four kills and Taylen Ballard-Nixon added three plus three service aces to help the Cougars gut out the win.

Olmstead was proud of the way her team regrouped to take two straight sets.

“I thought our girls just hung in there and let the game kind of come to them,” she said. “It just took a little while for us to get going.”

Purdue scored the first six points of the fourth set before coasting to an easy 25-13 win. For BYU it was eerily similar to the start of the match as the Boilermakers stayed comfortable throughout the set, forcing a fifth to keep their season alive.

“I thought we figured it out in the second and third sets and lost our focus again in the fourth set,” Olmstead said.

Purdue then rallied to overcome multiple deficits and take the shortened final set.

“If you know anything about volleyball in this country, you have automatic respect for Brigham Young University,” Boilermakers head coach Dave Shondell said.

“BYU as a program, in men’s and women’s volleyball, is highly respected. We knew coming into this match that it was going to be a challenge to beat BYU.”

Purdue was able to succeed where the Cougars couldn’t and now enters the Elite 8 with tournament wins over Illinois State, Dayton and BYU.

It will be the Boilermakers’ fourth appearance in a regional final — the last coming in 2013. The school has lost in all three of its previous regional finals.

The Boilermakers will face the winner of Pittsburgh and Kansas. Purdue has not played the Panthers in eight years but handled the Jayhawks back in August to the tune of a sweep.

BYU made it to the Sweet 16 with wins over Boise State and Utah before falling to Purdue. The loss is the second time in as many years that the Cougars were eliminated in the Sweet 16.

The Cougars ended the season with just two losses — their first loss of the year came in September to Pittsburgh in the Fitzgerald Field House, the venue of Thursday’s defeat to Purdue.