Win three, or go home

A two-game winning streak might not have been the way Beth Launiere envisioned her team entering the MWC tournament, but given the way the season has gone, she’ll take it.

Last year the U volleyball team strolled into Las Vegas on Thanksgiving weekend riding a 16-0 sweep through the regular season and a No. 1 seed to its credit. This year, the Utes are fortunate to have a bit of momentum and a No. 5 seed heading into their only shot at the NCAA tournament.

“It meant a lot to us to finish with two wins,” Launiere said. “This was nice. At this point we know the (MWC) tournament is our way to the NCAAs. We talked about that all season long — that we want to be playing our best volleyball at the end of the year like we are. It will be a tough road, but there is so much parity in the conference I think that anything can happen.”

The Utes sat at just 7-7 a week ago and were dangerously close to dropping down to a No. 6 seed. The Utes, however, found a way to put the pieces together just in time to beat No. 25 UNLV at home and follow that up with a 3-0 sweep over San Diego State.

Now it is just a question of which version of the Utes show up in Las Vegas. When the Utes are playing as a team, they have the ability to hold teams well below their season hitting averages. They also have the ability to spread the ball around and attack teams from all three hitting spots on the net.

When the Utes struggle, they still manage to put together offensive numbers they can work with, but usually find themselves trapped in long rallies without a sideout in site.

Two things usually dictate how well the Utes play on any given night: how well freshman setters Keisha Fisher and Stephanie Shardlow read the opposing block and how effective the Utes are at setting up the block, while simultaneously not leaving themselves open to tip-kills.

“Our biggest goal right now is to just stay together as a team and keep working as a team,” outside hitter Kat Haynie said. “When that happens, good things happen.”

When the Utes are on, they have the ability to beat conference powers such as UNLV and Colorado State. When the Utes are off, they let teams such as TCU off a 2-0 hook.

Through the highs and lows of the season, Launiere never questioned her team’s effort. What was in question was whether the Utes would find a way to get some confidence. Last weekend’s wins brought that.

“The more you win, the more you believe you can win,” Launiere said.

The only thing Utah has left to worry about is how to get past TCU. The Horned Frogs were only one of two MWC teams — BYU being the other — that Utah did not beat this year. When the two teams first met on Oct. 6, Utah held a 2-0 lead before letting TCU win the next three for a win on Crimson Court. When the series shifted to Fort Worth a month later, Utah was swept.

It’s not so much that TCU has Utah’s number this year as it is that the Horned Frogs manage to match up exceptionally well with the Utes.

Utah will have to hold TCU near the conference-leading opponent hitting percentage of .173, while finding a way to boost their own percentage above its .194 season average.

The Utes did that in their last two matches of the regular season and found great success. They will have to do it again to avoid getting missing out of the tournament semifinals for the first time ever.

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Tyler Cobb

Chelsea Sandberg will be calling plays back to her teammates Thursday as the fourth-seed Utes faces fifth-seed TCU.