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No. 18 BYU starts slowly, then sweeps James Madison in first round of NCAA Tournament

Cougars advance to Saturday’s Round of 32 matches with 25-20, 25-10, 25-15 win over Sun Belt champions

SHARE No. 18 BYU starts slowly, then sweeps James Madison in first round of NCAA Tournament
The BYU Cougars women’s volleyball team before its match against the San Diego Toreros on Tuesday, November 22, 2022 at Smith Fieldhouse in Provo, Utah.

The BYU Cougars women’s volleyball team before its match against the San Diego Toreros on Tuesday, November 22, 2022 at Smith Fieldhouse in Provo, Utah.

Jaren Wilkey/BYU

BYU women’s volleyball coach Heather Olmstead said the Cougars were playing their best volleyball of the season heading into Friday’s NCAA Tournament first-round match against Sun Belt champion James Madison.

The Dukes will certainly attest to that.

Seventh-seeded BYU dominated at Petersen Events Center in Pittsburgh and rolled to a 3-0 sweep over James Madison. The scores were 25-20, 25-10 and 25-15 as the No. 18-ranked Cougars flexed some muscle ahead of Saturday’s Round of 32 match at the same venue.

“It takes a little bit in the first round on the road to get used to the gym and used to the atmosphere. We just needed to settle down a little bit in that first set. We got our serve going and really put some pressure on them and tried to force them into some plays they didn’t like.” — BYU women’s volleyball coach Heather Olmstead

The Cougars (22-6) will take on the winner of the Pitt-Colgate match at 5 p.m. MST Saturday.

“Really proud of our team and the focus and the fight that we had, especially in that first set,” Olmstead said.

“I thought we played some clean volleyball. I thought our coaches put together a great scouting report and our girls executed it well, so I thought it was a great first-round match. We are excited to advance and grateful for the opportunity to be here.”

There were some tense moments early as JMU (24-5) jumped out to leads of 7-3 and 12-8 before the Cougars found their rhythm and footing.

“It takes a little bit in the first round on the road to get used to the gym and used to the atmosphere,” Olmstead said.

“We just needed to settle down a little bit in that first set. We got our serve going and really put some pressure on them and tried to force them into some plays they didn’t like.”

Erin Livingston led the Cougars with 20 kills and a .395 hitting percentage, while Heather Gneiting added 10 kills and hit .529.

Freshman Kate Prior had eight kills and a .636 hitting percentage to go with six blocks, while setter Whitney Bower had 33 assists and four digs.

“How good was Kate Prior today? She brought fire and energy. She has been waiting patiently for her turn and she is doing a good job playing a position she is not super familiar with on the right side and doing whatever the team needed,” Olmstead said.

“I think the greatest thing about Kate is she wants to help the team in any capacity, and she has embraced this opportunity to play right side for us. She is just really blossoming before all of our eyes.”

Gneiting said the Cougars didn’t talk much before the match about losing to Purdue in a Sweet 16 match in Pittsburgh in last year’s tournament, or that the homestanding Panthers downed them 3-1 in Provo in early September.

“We are super excited just to be here,” Gneiting said. “We kinda call it like our second home. We have been here a couple of times and we know this place.”

Said Bower, who missed a good chunk of the season with an injury: “It is easy to do my job when I have hitters firing on all cylinders. All my hitters wanted the ball. They were calling for it super loud.”

Olmstead said Aria McComber and Kelsey Knudsen played outstanding defense behind BYU’s block.

“They scooped some good balls in the back row and that helped us,” Olmstead said, “and then we were able to transition them and get some kills. … I thought Whitney Bower set a great match and made good decisions and really just put up good balls for our hitters.

“We had a lot of good one-on-one looks and the girls terminated them.”

McComber served seven points in a row in the second set, and the Cougars were off to the races. Assuming they face second-seeded Pitt next, it will take another outstanding performance to get back to the Sweet 16.

“It is nice for us because we have never played in the Pete (arena) so this is a different vibe,” Olmstead said.

“It is a nice, beautiful gym, so we are excited to advance tomorrow and whoever we get we will be ready and we are grateful for another chance to be together.”