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BYU women’s volleyball beats Utah to advance to Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament

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BYU players cheer after scoring a point against Utah in an NCAA volleyball game at Smith Fieldhouse in Provo on Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021.

Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News

BYU and Utah renewed their rivalry Saturday night at the Smith Fieldhouse in the second round of the NCAA women’s volleyball tournament, and the Cougars defeated the Utes 3-1 to advance to the Sweet 16 for the second year in a row.

Earlier this season, the No. 16 ranked Cougars took down a top 10-ranked Utah squad in Provo, needing just three sets to do so.

This time, Utah was No. 16 in the nation and No. 5 BYU held the top 10 national ranking, but that change was insignificant, as Saturday saw the same teams in the same venue play to the same result.

“Congrats to the University of Utah on a great season,” BYU coach Heather Olmstead said after defeating the Utes.

“They’re a great opponent and I’m super proud of our team for coming out and continuing our season. That’s all you can ask for. We get to keep playing.”

While Olmstead’s team ultimately got the victory, it got off to a rocky start. Utah won the first set 25-17, using a 9-1 run to get ahead.

The run gave the Utes a 13-9 lead and kept them in front the rest of the way. The 11-seed Cougars did not help their cause, committing four service errors that only increased the deficit on the scoreboard.

“We had adversity losing that first set,” Olmstead said. “We could have buckled, and we didn’t. We rose up and played three great sets after that and did some really nice things.

“I thought we stayed together, so I’m really proud of our group. I couldn’t be happier for them.”

BYU made the right adjustments to take the second set by three points, evening the match at a set apiece. The Cougars got their first lead since 1-0 midway through the set on a Taylen Ballard-Nixon block.

The hosts kept the Utes at bay, enduring a late Utah surge to pick up the win.

The third set belonged to the Cougars as well. Tied at nine, BYU scored the next seven points, the Smith Fieldhouse erupting with every consecutive point.

But with the Cougars’ momentum mounting, the Utes fought back, tightening things up before falling 25-23.

“We knew they were going to put up a fight,” Cougar sixth-year senior Kennedy Eschenberg said. “We just tried to focus on ourselves and playing BYU volleyball and focusing on the moment.

“I thought everyone did their jobs really well.”

The Cougars were aided by a sold-out crowd that did its job very well, too. BYU’s head coach joked about taking the ROC to the Sweet 16 with her team.

“Cougar nation was unbelievable. The line was out the door before we showed up,” Olmstead said. “It was incredible to see so many ROC students there.”

BYU gave its fans a show, finishing the match off with another 25-23 victory in the fourth set.

With its season on the line, the Utes traded blows with the Cougars, keeping things close the whole way, but BYU made just enough plays down the stretch to eke out the win.

“That was a great NCAA volleyball match,” Utah coach Beth Launiere said. “(BYU was) a little bit better tonight and we wish them well.”

For the second night in a row, sophomore outside hitter Erin Livingston led the Cougars in kills with 13, and Whitney Bower finished the night with a team-high 42 assists.

BYU will continue its postseason play when it meets Purdue, the 6-seed in the tournament, next week.

That match is scheduled to take place Thursday at the Fitzgerald Field House in Pittsburgh.

The Cougars and the Boilermakers have played twice all-time, with both times resulting in BYU victories.