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NCAA: Some Surprise Teams Still Standing in Sweet 16

Illinois survived a test against Hawaii before shocking Washington to reach the Sweet 16.

(Courtes of Illinois Athletics)

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PVB Top 50

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The opening weekend of the NCAA tournament behind us, only 11 of the top 16 seeds remain standing.

Two unseeded schools are set to meet in the Sweet 16, guaranteeing at least one unseeded squad will reach the Elite Eight and earn the right at making the Final Four.

Getting to the action across the country:

Biggest Upset

— Unseeded Illinois traveled to No. 8 Washington and upended the Huskies in five games, 25-22, 17-25, 20-25, 25-17, 15-9. It made Washington the highest-seeded team to fall on opening weekend. Jaqueline Quade and Beth Prince teamed for 29 kills, while freshman Megan Cooney came up clutch with 13 kills and hitting .444. Two things made this one stunning. First, it took place at Washington. Second, the Huskies were the senior-laden team with tourney experience. Illinois has just one senior on the roster with libero Brandi Donnelly. So now that the Fighting Illini are in the Sweet 16 with the majority of the lineup set to return next year, that’s a great position for Illinois to be in at the moment. This loss ends an era in Washington volleyball, as next year’s starting lineup is going to look dramatically different from this one. “My voice is out right now because I spent half the match cheering for these guys,” Illinois coach Chris Tamas said. “Again, just another gutty win and something we have been used to all year. We have really come together a lot over the season. Both tonight’s match and last night’s match are great examples of just coming through and playing hard.”

Near Miss

— If you look at some of the close calls, a couple happened with local programs having to square off against each other. The biggest near miss, however, belongs to No. 4 Kentucky, which needed a huge rally to get past Western Kentucky in five, 16-25, 22-25, 25-19, 25-21, 15-12. The ‘Cats improved to 4-0 this season in five-setters, but their latest tight-rope act was way too close for comfort. Alyssa Cavanaugh’s match-high 23 kills were almost enough to end Kentucky’s season, yet Leah Edmond off set it with 22 winners of her own. Avery Skinner and Kaz Brown each had 14 kills to back Edmond up. Brown hit .722 and had 9 blocks. “Obviously, these are special wins when you can comeback like that,” Kentucky coach Craig Skinner said. “That’s probably the toughest I’ve ever seen Kentucky volleyball play since I’ve been here. I’m really proud of the team for finding a way to get it done.”

Crashing the Party

— Of the teams alive in the Sweet 16, Missouri is the biggest surprise. The Tigers came through with one of the biggest upsets of the first round by eliminating No. 18 Kansas in five, 25-23, 15-25, 25-15, 20-25, 15-10, behind Kira Larson’s 17 kills on a .400 clip. Missouri, ranked No. 40 in PVB’s Top 50, continued on by beating No. 28 Wichita State, 25-23, 25-22, 21-25, 26-24. Sydney Deeken led Missouri with 15 kills in that one. “Obviously, we’re thrilled to be able to get out of here with a win,” Missouri coach Wayne Kreklow said. “It was a battle. It was one of those epic matches that could’ve gone either way. We knew coming in that if we could get by the first night against Kansas, we’d most likely face Wichita State the second night. It was one of those matches where every set could’ve gone either way. Both teams were making great plays. It was just a fantastic match.”

Best of Round 2

— The 10th-seeded Trojans were in a similar position as Kentucky, having to host local San Diego with the Toreros loving nothing more than to deliver the knockout blow. In a back-and-forth thriller, the home team survived in five, 25-22, 24-26, 24-26, 25-22, 15-11. San Diego tormented USC with a balanced attack that saw four players reach double digits in kills – Jayden Kennedy (16), Addie Picha (12), Lauren Fuller (12) and Kaity Edwards (12). Conversely, USC used a large dose of Khalia Lanier – 23 kills on 58 swings and hitting .259 – to fend off San Diego. Niki Withers (14 kills) and Brittany Abercrombie (12) held down the right-side attack for the Trojans, who improved to 6-1 in five-set contests this season. “This is a great win for us because we’re continuing to grow and get better,” USC coach Mick Haley said. “All the things that we’ve had happen to us during the season happened to us again during set two and three. No one knew who would win set four until right at the end and we started making the right decisions down the stretch and executed the right way.”

More From Round 2

— No other matches in Round 2 went five games. One of the best showdowns in terms of PVB’s Top 50 Rankings featured 11th-seeded Utah, ranked No. 13, hosting unseeded and No. 21 Purdue for a spot in the Sweet 16. The Utes pulled out a pair of close sets and downed the Boilermakers in four, 25-23, 25-19, 13-25, 27-25. It was a fascinating victory for Utah, because all the numbers favored Purdue. The Boilermakers hit .356 as a team, out-blocked Utah 13-3 and out-dug the Utes 64-52. However, Utah managed to produce 30 more swings to help offset things. Danielle Cuttino (16 kills, .33), Azariah Stahl (15 kills, .481) and Blake Mohler (10 kills, .529) were so good, it’s hard to believe Purdue lost! However, Purdue struggled to slow Adora Anae. Her 27 kills and .367 clip carried the day. She took 49 swings. Tawnee Luafalemana was also effective in the middle with 12 kills and hitting .385. Brianna Doehrmann put up a match-high 18 digs for the Utes.

— Every match of the second round featured PVB Top 50 squads squaring off. On paper, the best was No. 16 Colorado on the road against No. 17 Baylor but the drama never materialized. Alexa Smith (14 kills, .394) and Frankie Shebby (11 kills, .308) overwhelmed the Bears in the sweep, 25-12, 25-22, 25-20.

— One of the juiciest storylines was No. 23 Cal Poly taking on No. 15 UCLA in Torrey Van Winden’s first time playing her former teammates. She recorded a team-high 16 kills for the Mustangs, but the Bruins did a good job of slowing her down as Van Winden hit just .145. It was the Reily Buechler show instead. The senior ripped down 26 kills and hit a mind-numbing .436. Zana Muno had 26 digs, and setter Sarah Sponcil added 24 digs in a big defensive performance from the Bruins.

Michigan State, Wisconsin and BYU all had interesting Round 2 encounters. For the Cougars, they had to deal with Oregon but the drama stayed away as Roni Jones-Perry dropped 27 kills in the sweep, 25-20, 25-21, 25-19. Though Creighton was playing host as the No. 9 seed, we had the Bluejays at No. 26 in the nation. The Spartans, not seeded, finished No. 10 in our final Top 50 but prevailed in four, 25-23, 19-25, 25-20, 25-16, as Autumn Bailey registered 18 kills and 13 digs. It was the same case with unseeded Wisconsin, ranked No. 11 and playing at No. 24 Iowa State, seeded No. 14. The Badgers swept, 25-22, 25-20, 25-23, behind big nights from freshmen Dana Rettke (15 kills, .520) and Grace Loberg (13 kills, .303).

Best of Round 1

— While only two of the 32 first-round clashes went the distance, Colorado State taking down Michigan in four, 25-23, 23-25, 25-22, 26-24, might have been the most newsworthy. The Wolverines were one of the hotter teams coming into the dance and fueled by the motivation of an earlier loss to the Rams. Yet, the Mountain West champs held strong and pulled out the victory once again, receiving monster outings from Kirstie Hillyer (13 kills, .480) and Jasmine Hanna (13 kills, .400). Illinois upset Washington in Round 2 but was close to going out in the opening round. Illinois, after winning the first two sets, held off a fierce rally from Hawaii to win in five, 25-18, 25-17, 13-25, 24-26, 15-10. Quade had 15 kills to lead Illinois. In a clash between two schools coming off great regular seasons, NC State edged Oregon State, 25-18, 19-25, 25-21, 21-25, 15-13. Bree Bailey (22 kills), Julia Brown (19 kills) and Melissa Evans (15 kills) provided much of the offense for the Wolfpack. One of the more intriguing first-round meetings was No. 31 Louisville taking on No. 37 Northern Iowa. This one was all Northern Iowa though, as the Panthers swept, 25-21, 25-15, 27-25. Piper Thomas (18 kills, .500) and Karlie Taylor (17 kills, .387) were the biggest culprits against Louisville. 

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