BYU overpowers Utah 3-1 for 30th win this season, advance to Sweet 16
PROVO, Utah – The 11th-seeded BYU women’s volleyball team defeated Utah after four challenging sets (17-25, 25-22, 25-23, 25-23) in the second round of the 2021 NCAA Tournament on Saturday in the Smith Fieldhouse, securing the program’s ninth Sweet 16 appearance in 10 seasons.
Back in 2019, the Utes dominated in the Smith Fieldhouse, sweeping the Cougars and prohibiting them from advancing in the NCAA Tournament. Utah failed to repeat history as BYU edged by with a slightly higher .283 hitting percentage.
The crowd included 4,729 fans, notching the eight-highest attendance record in the Smith Fieldhouse. The win extends BYU’s winning streak to 23 matches and ups the season’s overall record to 30-1. Since head coach Heather Olmstead took over in 2015, this is the third time the Cougars broke the 30-win threshold.
The Utes out-killed BYU’s 59-50 and had a .256 clip. However, 26 attack errors and eight service errors allowed the Cougars to keep pace.
Offensively, Utah's Dani Drews led the night with 18 kills, followed by teammate Madelyn Robinson’s 17 kills. BYU sophomore outside hitter Erin Livingston followed with 13 kills of her own. BYU senior outside hitter Taylen Ballard-Nixon put up 12 kills and a .333 hitting percentage.
Junior setter Whitney Bower contributed with 42 assists and 10 digs. It was her 13th double-double of the season.
BYU outblocked Utah, 11.5-7. Junior middle blocker Heather Gneiting led the night with her six block assists and a solo block.
BYU started off in the lead after four combined kills from graduate opposite hitter Kenzie Koerber and graduate middle blocker Kennedy Eschenberg. Utah battled back with three quick kills, tying the match at 7-7.
The Utes continued the momentum, stringing together a 6-0 run to take the lead. BYU managed three more errors, widening the gap to 15-9.
Ultimately, BYU tallied six attack errors and four service errors. These errors proved to be detrimental in the final minutes of the set, giving Utah the first set victory at 25-17.
Utah picked up where it left off, leading 3-0. Koerber put BYU on the board with a kill and an ace. From there, the teams traded kills until a kill by BYU senior outside hitter Taylen Ballard-Nixon tied the match back up at 12-12. The teams tied again at 14-14, but Drews laid down her sixth kill of the set to give Utah the upper hand.
Tides changed after three consecutive attack errors by Utah. Another kill by Ballard-Nixon completed a 4-0 run for BYU, earning the team its first lead of the set at 17-15. Utah managed a 3-0 run, putting pressure on the Cougars. However, final kills by Ballard-Nixon and Eschenberg secured BYU its first set win at 25-22.
Utah started the set off with an early three-point lead. BYU closed the gap and took the lead after an ace by Ballard-Nixon. The teams remained tight, tying five times by 9-9.
The Cougars quickly took back their lead and never lost it. Three kills by Livingston, an ace by senior setter Tayler Hifo and a block by Eschenberg resulted in a 7-0 run, extending BYU’s lead to 16-10.
Kills by five different Cougars overpowered a late push and 4-0 run by Utah, allowing BYU to take the set at 25-23.
BYU and Utah traded points at the start of the set. Eventually, BYU took the lead at 11-8, thanks to a 5-0 run including a dump by Bower and Ballard-Nixon’s third ace of the night.
The back-and-forth scoring continued, with Utah chipping away at BYU’s lead. Four consecutive service errors by the Cougars tied the match at 22-22. A bail sailing out of bounds after a Utah attack error sealed BYU’s win at 25-23.
Up next, BYU advances to the Regional Semifinals in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Cougars will face No. 6 seed Purdue in the Fitzgerald Fieldhouse on Thursday, Dec. 9.
Heather Olmstead’s Opening Statement
“What a match. Congrats to the University of Utah on a great season. They were a great opponent tonight and super proud of our team for coming out and extending our season. That's all you can ask for. We get to keep playing and grateful for the chance that we had to play at home.”
“And I'm just proud of our team for the way we gritted it out that win. It was tough, we had adversity, losing that first set, we could have buckled but we didn't. We rose up and played three great sets and did some really nice things.”
Olmstead on the turning point in the match.
“Some of us say, my assistant Johnny, that it was Heather Gneiting stuffed a ball straight down in the second set. But I feel like a big momentum shift was when Taylor Hifo went in and got some big time digs in the second set. She went in and served her serve, got some digs and scored some big points for us. So there were two differing opinions but we just never gave up, always fought and that's one of our mottos. We're going to fight, we're never going to give up and you saw that in our team today.”
Kennedy Eschenburg on playing in the NCAA Tournament against Utah in the Fieldhouse
“It was awesome. We talked about before the game that no matter what this was, for a lot of us seniors, our last match in the Fieldhouse. What a moment to be able to play Utah, have it be close, have it be a fight and have that feeling of just being gritty and playing together. It was amazing and all the fans were incredible. It's cool.”
Kennedy Eschenburg on the importance of BYU’s 12 blocks
It was huge. Utah was taking some really good swings but I love that our coaches just trusted us and said “keep doing your jobs, keep getting over and you'll get those touches.” It was really big and then our defense behind the block was huge.”
Olmstead on Whitney Bower and Heather Gneiting’s Block
And speaking of that, there was one point, I think it was the fourth set. We got a big-time block from Heather [Gneiting] and Whitney [Bower] and they call the timeout. And said, “Whitney great block.” She said, “it was Heather” and Heather said, “no, it was Whitney.” Nobody would take credit. It was the weirdest thing and then they said, “it was both of us.”
And that's just a credit to our team. They're just so selfless, they want to give credit to each other and I said, “somebody own the block.” I actually think Whitney stuffed it. That's just Whitney. She's going to give credit to other players, she's doing her job trying to do the best she can. She does so many things for us, so I thought that was a cool moment and the match. It just says a lot about our team and our setter.
Kennedy Eschenburg on fighting off late surges from Utah
We knew they were going to put up a fight and that's awesome. We just tried to focus on ourselves, playing BYU volleyball and focusing on the moment. Everyone did their jobs really well.
Kenzie Koerber on playing her former team
Heather and I talked about it before the game actually. She said, “I think they're going to serve you every ball” and they did. They came after me, but I thought it was really cool that I had other teammates that I could rely on to put balls away. Offensively it was an off night for me, but I knew that I just could continue to take care of business where and when I had the chance, which was in serve receive, serving and playing defense.
Again, it was just the other team. Obviously, I know those girls pretty well, but I think I did a good job and my team did a good job at focusing on our side of the net. We're really good at problem solving. They were in our face and put us in a battle, so we just continued to problem solve and we never once thought about what they were doing on their side and just continue to do what we do.
Cougars to face Utah in the second round of NCAA Tournament
PROVO, Utah – No. 11 seed BYU women's volleyball will play the University of Utah in the second round of the NCAA Women's Volleyball Tournament on Saturday, Dec. 4 in the Smith Fieldhouse.
The match between the Cougars and Utes will begin at 7 p.m. MST. On Friday afternoon, Utah earned its spot in the second round after a 3-1 (25-16, 22-25, 25-19, 25-11) victory over Utah Valley University. Later that evening, BYU dominated Boise State University in a 3-0 sweep (25-6, 25-19, 25-10)
This is the second time this season that BYU and Utah will face each other. Back in September, the Cougars swept the Utes in the Smith Fieldhouse. That put the all-time record between the rivals at 74-29, favoring BYU.
This weekend’s matches are available to view live via ESPN+. ESPN has exclusivity rights for the NCAA Women’s Volleyball Tournament. Those rights prohibit a simulcast from BYUtv.
Brigham Young University Cougars (29-1, 18-0 West Coast Conference)
- The Cougars are on a 22-match winning streak
- This is head coach Heather Olmstead’s sixth season with 20+ wins
- On Monday, the WCC honored Olmstead as Coach of the Year, graduate opposite hitter Kenzie Koerber as Player of the Year and junior setter Whitney Bower as Setter of the Year.
- Senior outside hitter Taylen Ballard-Nixon, graduate middle blocker Kennedy Eschenberg, junior middle blocker Heather Gneiting, sophomore outside hitter Erin Livingston and sophomore libero Madi Allen all received All-WCC honors.
- Graduate middle blocker Kennedy Eschenberg is a Senior CLASS Award finalist
- Junior middle blocker Heather Gneiting ranks No. 3 in the NCAA for hitting percentage, holding a .464 clip
- BYU finished the regular season ranked No. 2 in the NCAA in opponent hitting percentage (.118), No. 2 in hitting percentage (.339), No. 2 in match winning percentage (.966), No. 5 in kills per set (14.38) and No. 16 in assists per set (13.03). BYU leads the WCC in all these categories.
University of Utah Utes (22-8, 14-6 Pac-12 Conference)
- This is Utah’s sixth-straight NCAA Tournament appearance
- The Utes finished third place in the Pac-12 for the third year in a row. The 14 Pac-12 wins ties a program-best since joining the league, which was set in 2019.
- Utah has recorded six top-25 wins this season, which includes the two highest ranked program road wins of all-time (No. 3 Nebraska, No. 6 Washington).
- Four Utes received conference honors. Dani Drews and Madelyn Robinson were named to the All-Pac-12 First Team, while Stef Jankiewicz and Zoe Weatherington landed on the honorable mention list.
- Utah leads the Pac-12 in kills per set (14.26) and is ninth in the nation.
- Utah is the only team in the Pac-12 to rank in the top-five of the conference in every statistical category: kills per set (No. 1), assists per set (No. 3), opponent hitting percentage (No. 3), aces per set (No. 4), hitting percentage (No. 4), blocks per set (No. 5), digs per set (No. 5).
BROADCAST INFORMATION – Dec. 4
Purchase tickets online via byutickets.com.
Consistent with current Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and BYU requirements, BYU Athletics will require masks in indoor venues when physical distancing isn’t maintained. This includes a requirement for those attending indoor athletic events, such as volleyball in the Smith Fieldhouse, basketball inside the Marriott Center and inside the loges at LaVell Edwards Stadium. Wearing a mask will be required for entry to indoor BYU venues. Masks will not be required for outdoor BYU venues.
BYU strongly urges students, employees and campus guests to follow recent counsel from the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to get vaccinated and wear masks.
The university will continue to monitor the situation and will reevaluate mask requirements based on several factors, including the immunization rate of the campus community, COVID-19 transmission and hospitalization rates, and guidance from health and government officials.