For ten minutes, the BYU women’s volleyball team was just about perfect.
The Cougars played spectacularly during a 16-0 run in the first set of their first round NCAA Tournament match against New Mexico State and rode that momentum to a sweep (25-7, 25-23, 25-19) of the WAC champions, ending the Aggies 19-match winning streak in front of 2,401 fans at the Smith Fieldhouse on Friday.
BYU (26-4) will advance to the second round Saturday. Its opponent? The University of Utah, which survived a marathon five-setter with Illinois (25-23, 26-24, 25-27, 25-23, 15-10) in the first round.
McKenna Miller led the Cougars on Friday with 13 kills (.379, only two errors), four block assists and three service aces. Freshman Kate Grimmer added 10 kills (.667, 2 errors) and three aces as well. BYU hit .386 for the match and committed just seven total errors behind the setting of freshman Whitney Bower (31 assists, seven digs). On the defensive side, 6-foot-5 junior middle Kennedy Eschenberg had six block assists and was instrumental in holding New Mexico State to a .205 hitting percentage.
Savannah Davison led the Aggies (27-4) with 12 kills but WAC Player of the Year Megan Hart was a non-factor with three kills and four errors on 11 swings (-.091).
“I thought defensively we did a good job,” BYU coach Heather Olmstead said. “Whitney’s back row defense in the right back was exceptional. That really sparked us. It’s exciting when people are playing scrappy defense in the back row. It inspires other people to do that as well. Mary (Lake) did a great job passing. It was one of our better passing matches. It was nice because of all the hard work we’ve put in getting better at passing.”
Bower served two aces, Eschenberg and Miller had a pair of tandem blocks and Grimmer added three kills in the devastating 16-0 run, turning a 8-6 score into a 24-6 lead, the home crowd growing louder with each point.
“Whitney’s serve,” Olmstead said simply. “She’s been working really hard on her serve. For me, it felt like they (New Mexico State) had the jitters of the tournament. That’s not their team at all. I know because I watched a bunch of film on them.”
Grimmer got the game winner for a 25-7 win. The Cougars hit .520 in Set 1 with 25 swings and zero errors. The 18-point margin was the largest for BYU since beating Idaho State 25-7 in the first set of a five-set victory in 2015.
“I loved the energy,” Miller said. “You could just feel it. We were all doing our jobs and following the scout. We knew what we needed to do and executed. It was really good because we know we’re capable of playing at a level like that when we do what we need to do. Whitney serve was awesome and it was getting us in really good position defensively. It felt really good and really in control.”
New Mexico State played much better in Set 2, hitting .375 and slowing down the BYU attack. The Aggies managed to tie the set at 21 on a kill from Davison, but Grimmer blasted a kill and then a service ace for a 23-21 Cougar lead. At second set point, BYU was out of system but Lake set up Miller with a beautiful bump set, and Miller pounded the ball down for a 25-23 victory.
New Mexico State took a 12-9 lead in Set 3 on a kill from Cat Kelly but the momentum switched firmly to the home team after a terrific defensive play by Miller. Her pancake save ended up in a Madi Robinson roll shot to give BYU a 14-13 lead and the Cougars never trailed again.
“I’m coming for her (Lake’s) job,” Miller said about her defensive play. “Watch out.”
Lake added, “I definitely get more excited when McKenna does something cool. It’s a game-changer and that pancake was huge on a ball she was not supposed to get up. I was just so proud and excited for her and the team. It was a defensive shift play and it was awesome.”
Miller served back-to-back aces for a 20-13 BYU lead. At third match point, Heather Gneiting’s attack was too hot to handle and the Cougars won 25-19 for the sweep.
Dani Drews led the Utes (23-9) against Illinois with 27 kills and Jacqueline Quade paced the Illini (16-14) — a national semifinalist last season — with 23.
BYU topped Utah 3-1 in Salt Lake City earlier this season and swept the Utes in last year’s second round at the Smith Fieldhouse to advance to the Sweet 16.