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BYU survives epic second set, sweeps UCLA 3-0 in NCAA women’s volleyball second-round match

No. 16 seed Cougars will now face No. 1 seed Wisconsin on Saturday in a Sweet 16 match in Omaha, Nebraska

The BYU Cougars celebrate their win over the UCLA Bruins at the NCAA women’s volleyball tournament in Omaha, Nebraska on Thursday April 15, 2021.
BYU Photo

In an NCAA women’s volleyball tournament second-round match that really was closer than the final score indicates, No. 16 seed BYU Cougars swept the Pac-12’s UCLA Bruins 3-0 on Thursday night in Omaha, Nebraska.

The scores were 26-24, 31-29 and 25-17 as the Cougars overcame eight UCLA set points — including seven in a wild second set — and advanced to the Sweet 16 for the eighth time in the last nine NCAA Tournaments.

“I don’t even know where to start,” said BYU coach Heather Olmstead. “They focused and stayed in the present and executed. They never gave up. I don’t even know what to say. I am so proud of them, so happy for them, excited for them. We just stayed with it.”

Said senior middle blocker Kennedy Eschenberg: “It was just amazing and magical.”

BYU (17-1) moves on to face No. 1 overall seed Wisconsin on Saturday at 6 p.m. MDT on ESPN3 in a regional semifinal. The match was moved from Sunday to Saturday because of BYU’s longstanding policy of not playing or practicing on Sunday for religious reasons.

The other seven matches in the tournament will be played Sunday. All matches are being played in Omaha due to the pandemic.

“We are excited to be advancing,” Olmstead said. “We are grateful to the NCAA for changing up their tournament a little bit for us. We talked about that as a team. We are super grateful to them for moving our match to Saturday. We are talking about them doing something that maybe has never been done before, having to shift and adjust.”

Wisconsin swept Weber State 3-0 earlier Thursday, but the Wildcats were not blown off the court by the Big Ten champions. Olmstead said the Cougars, who played in the national championship game in 2014, will be “ready for the challenge.”

The Badgers and Cougars will have a hard time duplicating the drama in Thursday’s second-round match, even if it goes five sets.

The first NCAA Tournament matchup between BYU and UCLA since 1994 was razor-close the first two sets. Taylen Ballard-Nixon, wife of former BYU basketball standout Dalton Nixon, led the way with 13 kills, nine digs and five blocks in one of the best matches of her career.

“She definitely stepped up,” Olmstead said.

Erin Livingston addd 12 kills and three blocks, while hitting .267, and middle blocker Eschenberg was an absolute wall at the net, posting 11 kills and eight blocks.

“Kennedy, she was a beast,” Olmstead said.

The Cougars hit .256 and held UCLA to .115 hitting. BYU had 16 blocks while the Bruins had just seven.

Whitney Bower, the West Coast Conference Player of the Year and Setter of the Year, ran the offense beautifully all night and finished with 38 assists, 11 digs and three blocks.

“During that second set, I could see the look in Whitney’s eyes,” Olmstead said. “She wasn’t going to let us (quit). … I thought she played fantastic.”

In the first set, UCLA led 14-10 and was looking like the team that crushed Rider 3-0 in Wednesday’s first round (as a seeded team, BYU got a first-round bye) and had already gotten rid of first-match jitters.

A tap down by Leilani Dodson (four kills, seven blocks) put BYU on a 7-4 run, however, and the Cougars broke from a 19-19 tie to take a 23-20 lead. Dodson “played pretty fearlessly,” Olmstead said.

However, UCLA scored four unanswered points to take a 24-23 and get its first set point of the match. Ballard-Nixon came up with a kill to tie it, though, then a UCLA hitting error gave the Cougars set point and Ballard-Nixon finished the set off with another kill.

In the second set, UCLA had a 20-14 lead before BYU again caught fire as Dodson and Ballard-Nixon came up with a huge block to get the Cougars rolling. UCLA led 24-21, though, before BYU rallied again.

The Bruins had seven set points, but couldn’t finish BYU off, and when Livingston and Dodson combined on a block, the Cougars had a 31-29 win. That was BYU’s 11th stuff block of the match.

BYU dominated the third set, got an ace from Abbey Dayton during a late-set run and finished it off after UCLA had pulled within four, 20-16.

Many volleyball experts were calling for a UCLA win after the Bruins entered the match ranked No. 15 in the AVCA poll. BYU was ranked No. 14.

“We loved it,” Eschenberg said of the Cougars’ supposed underdog status. “It was fun. We loved that challenge. It helped us, motivated us and gave us a lot of energy and it was a really fun match.”

Added Olmstead: “That second set was one for the books. It was such a fun set. I hope people appreciated what they saw tonight. It was some good volleyball.”