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UVU women’s volleyball falls to Utah in NCAA first round

By Jared Lloyd - | Dec 3, 2021
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UVU players go up for a block during the match against Utah in the first round of the NCAA tournament at the Smith Fieldhouse in Provo on Friday, Dec. 3, 2021. (Jay Drowns, UVU Marketing)
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UVU players celebrate scoring a point during the match against Utah in the first round of the NCAA tournament at the Smith Fieldhouse in Provo on Friday, Dec. 3, 2021. (Jay Drowns, UVU Marketing)
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UVU libero Bryton Bishop gets a dig during the match against Utah in the first round of the NCAA tournament at the Smith Fieldhouse in Provo on Friday, Dec. 3, 2021. (Jay Drowns, UVU Marketing)
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UVU players celebrate scoring a point during the match against Utah in the first round of the NCAA tournament at the Smith Fieldhouse in Provo on Friday, Dec. 3, 2021. (Jay Drowns, UVU Marketing)
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UVU senior Kristen Bell gets a dig during the match against Utah in the first round of the NCAA tournament at the Smith Fieldhouse in Provo on Friday, Dec. 3, 2021. (Jay Drowns, UVU Marketing)

When looking to upset an excellent opponent in the NCAA volleyball tournament, one critical component is limiting big runs.

When Utah Valley did that against Utah during Friday’s first round battle at the Smith Fieldhouse in Provo, the Wolverines had quite a bit of success.

Unfortunately, it’s easier said than done.

Led by All-American senior Dani Drews, the Utes found ways to score points in bunches in three of the four sets as Utah secured the 3-1 win (25-16, 22-25, 25-19, 25-11).

“We have a lot of respect for Utah,” UVU head coach Sam Atoa said. “They played obviously a lot better than we did and executed well in the game. I was just really proud of our girls and their resilience. At one point in time, it was a dream of ours to get to the NCAA tournament. This transition of where we’ve taken this program from to where we’re at now has evolved quite a bit. A lot of that has to do with just the young ladies that we have on our team.”

The best frame for the Wolverines was Set No. 2 as UVU surged to a 7-3 lead in the early going.

“We did so much better and we sided out at a higher percentage,” Atoa said. “We went from 37% side out rate in the first set to siding out at 68% in the second. It was more of us taking care of the ball on our side and I think that was the difference.”

Although Utah would rally to tie on three separate occasions — including at 19-19 — the Wolverines never let the Utes pull in front.

When the set was on the line, UVU got a pair of big kills from junior opposite Tori Dorius, a kill from junior outside hitter Kalea Kennedy and then the set-point winner from senior outside hitter Kristen Bell.

“It’s always fun like going back to locker room and celebrating with the team,” Bell said. “Being able to celebrate any little victory is great. The next ones didn’t go our way but I feel proud. We always fight.”

That victory put the Wolverines in contention but, as they had in Set 1, the Utes made some key runs in Sets 3 and 4 to get the win and advance.

In the first set, Utah had an 8-1 spurt to seize control, then scored the final seven points of the frame.

It was 6-1 and 8-2 Ute runs that propelled Utah in Set 3, while the Utes got an early 12-2 surge in the final frame that put them in position to cruise to the finish.

“I think Utah Valley is a really good team,” Utah head coach Beth Launier said. “They are very well-coached and have the utmost respect for what they are doing. They have a lot of really good hitters, and they were fired up. They played really well. It came down to serving and passing. We started serving a lot tougher and our passers started getting us more in system on offense, which got us going.”

UVU was led by 13 kills from Dorius, while senior outside hitter Kazna Tanuvasa had nine kills. Sophomore libero Bryton Bishop had 11 digs and tacked on a pair of aces.

Drews had 18 kills, 12 digs and three aces to lead Utah, while Madelyn Robinson tacked on 13 kills.

While the Wolverines would’ve loved to get the upset, they were proud of the way the team came together to play its best volleyball at the end of the year.

“It’s for sure been a roller coaster,” Dorius said. “We’ve been through a lot of ups and downs but I think our our system and our team dynamic always just has stayed the same. We have a very consistent mindset of coming together and working hard as a team. I think that is the most important thing. That helped us get through all those challenges.”

He couldn’t keep the emotion out of his voice as he talked about the seniors and what they contributed to his program.

“It’s not just about one year,” Atoa said. “It’s about a relationship that you’ve built over time. To see how they’ve grown from the first time that we recruited them, that’s why I continue to coach. That part I never get burned out of. Sometimes you get exhausted with some of the mundane things but the reason you keep coming back and back and back is because of the desire that these young ladies have to want to be better and want to be taught. This group of young ladies have been with us for at least four years. The love that I have for each of them and the bond we’ve created is what means so much to me as a coach.”

Utah advanced to face BYU in the second round match, which will take place at the Smith Fieldhouse in Provo Saturday at 7 p.m.

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