Comeback ‘Cats: Utes split weekend set, bow to Arizona

The U volleyball team’s stay in the NCAA tournament lasted one round longer than it did a year ago, but the Utes still fell shy of the Sweet 16.

Playing host at Crimson Court for the first two rounds this weekend, the Utes opened up play with a first-round sweep of Loyola Marymount, but saw their season come to an end Saturday night in a hotly contested and well-played 3-1 loss to the Arizona Wildcats (30-28, 30-26, 26-30, 30-27).

“I am very proud of the effort and the performance tonight of our team,” U head coach Beth Launiere said. “I couldn’t be more proud.”

Arizona, the No. 4 seed in the entire tournament, came away with a sweep over Utah State in its first-round match-up, but things didn’t come nearly as easily against Utah. “It was a rough match. It was tough to play in front of Utah’s home crowd and advance to the next round,” Arizona head coach David Rubio said. “Utah gave us everything we could handle. My hat is off to them.”

The Wildcats had to overcome a 20-15 deficit in the first game, not to mention a raucous Utah crowd, to squeeze by with a 30-28 win. After Arizona’s game-two win put Utah in a 2-0 hole, the Utes rebounded, going neck-and-neck with the favored Wildcats and escaping the third game with a 30-28 win, sealed by Shelly Sommerfeldt’s decisive kill that was deflected out of bounds by a Wildcat defender.

“In game three, I really thought those guys would start to play a little more tentatively, and they didn’t,” Rubio said. “They actually came out more aggressive. They got stronger.”

For a great deal of the fourth and deciding game, it looked as though Utah might ride its momentum all the way to a fifth game, as the Utes opened up a 4-0 lead to take control.

“There was not one moment we were on our heels,” Whitney Webb said. “We went 100 percent forward the entire (match). There’s nothing that would have stopped us.”

The team had a three-point advantage late into the game, as Lori Baird gave the Utes a 26-23 lead. But the Wildcats exploded for a late 7-1 flurry to close Utah out and advance to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2002. Fittingly, it was all-Pac-10 senior Kim Glass who notched the last two kills of the match to seal the deal for Arizona.

“It feels good. We haven’t been (to the Sweet 16) in a long time, and we just have so much sweat, blood and tears,” Glass said. “Every team has gone through that, but I feel like we deserve it more than anybody.”

For nearly the entire match, the teams went back and forth, and after all was said and done, both coaches were pleased with the performances of their respective teams. Both played well offensively, as the Utes hit .299 against one of the top blocking teams in the country while Arizona hit .323.

“I’m very proud of the match that we played,” Launiere said. “We didn’t back down, and we competed hard…It’s the NCAAs and (Arizona) is the fourth seed in the tournament, and we were a couple of points from going to a fifth game.”

Glass led the Wildcats with 27 kills, while Kristina Baum and Jennifer Abernathy each added 21. For the Utes, senior Sommerfeldt led the way with 18 kills in her final match, committing just four errors, and Airial Salvo chipped in with 15 to go along with a team-high 14 digs.

“Our team, altogether, played well, and we fell barely short,” Sommerfeldt said. “If I have to go out, that’s the best way to do it.”

Despite the loss, the Utes went out in strong fashion, thanks to a solid performance against the Wildcats and the tournament-opening win over Loyola Marymount the night before. Friday’s three-game sweep over, which took just 77 minutes for the Utes to complete, saw Utah hit .330 as a team and out-block the Lions 17-3 en route to a convincing win, which included a 30-10 blowout in the first game. Salvo led the U with 16 kills, while Webb hit .833, and Leichliter had a match-high 15 digs.

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