Kyle Spradley, University of Wyoming
Seren Merrill (center) and her Utah Valley teammates celebrate during the opening round of the NIVC on Thursday evening at Wyoming's UniWyo Sports Complex in Laramie. The Wolverines earned a come-from-behind five-set thriller over the Cowgirls to advance in the NIVC.

The Utah Valley University volleyball team managed to stave off match point four times late in the fifth set en route to recording a hard earned five-set thriller over the Wyoming Cowgirls in the opening round of the National Invitational Volleyball Championship on Thursday evening at the UniWyo Sports Complex in Laramie (11-25, 28-26, 23-25, 25-22, 21-19).

With UVU trailing the Cowgirls 15-14 in the fifth set, Makaila Jarema drilled home a decisive kill to deadlock the score at 15-15 and force extra points. Again down 16-15, Utah Valley got a clutch kill from Kristen Allred to tie the score at 16-all. Down 17-16, UVU got back-to-back points on one of Kazna Tarawhiti's match-high 22 kills followed by a UW attack error to take a 18-17 match-point advantage of its own. The Pokes responded with consecutive kills from Jackie McBride to take another match-point advantage at 19-18. With their backs against the wall, the Wolverines then pieced together a clutch 3-0 spurt to record the comeback victory over the Mountain West Cowgirls (20-11, 12-6 MW). Jasmine Niutupuivaha started the final spurt with a kill, the WAC Freshman of the Year Tarawhiti followed with another of her own and the Wolverines capped the comeback on a UW attack error to take the opening-round NIVC contest.

With the victory, UVU (20-13, 9-7 WAC) surpasses the 20-win plateau for the first time since 2011 when it recorded a school record 23 wins. The Wolverines now advance to face Portland in the second round of the NIVC on Friday in Laramie.

"I'm just ecstatic with the girls' fight and how they managed to hang in there. They were truly the aggressor in the match, and we are very pleased that we were able to pull it out in that fifth set," head UVU coach Sam Atoa said. "We've had a number of difficult five-set matches on the year, and I think really helped prepare us to be mentally tough when we needed to tonight. It was great overall to be able to see the girls embrace the opportunity and to battle there at the end, and I'm very proud of their hard work and determination."

Behind Tarawhiti's match-high 22 kills, Allred and Niutupuivaha too topped double figures in kills for the Wolverines with 13 and 10, respectively. Jarema led the way at the net with a match-high 10 blocks. The Wolverine junior tied a single-season UVU record with the tally as her and Madison Dennison now share the UVU block assist record with 173. Jarema also added eight kills, while Niutupuivaha recorded seven blocks and Alexis Davies added six. Tarawhiti also recorded a double-double on the night by adding 17 digs, while Madi Wardle added a double-double of her own with 27 assists and 14 digs.

The Wolverines looked determined to turn things around in the early stages of the second game, as they pulled out to a 6-2 lead. Niutupuivaha paced the early run for UVU with a pair of kills and a block. The Wolverines later stretched their lead to 10-5 following a 3-0 spurt that was capped by a Jarema and Kaili Downs block assist. The Cowgirls responded with three-straight points to make it a 10-8 deficit. With UVU later holding a 13-9 advantage following a UW attack error, the Pokes then managed to piece together back-to-back-to-back points to make it 13-12. Utah Valley again answered with five-consecutive points thanks to a Tarawhiti kill, a Niutupuivaha and Tarawhiti block assist, a UW error, a Davies and Niutupuivaha block and a Tarawhiti kill to take a 18-12 lead.

Wyoming bounced back with a 7-1 run in the second set to deadlock the score at 19-19. UVU struck back with back-to-back points to pull ahead by two, but back countered the Pokes with five-consecutive points of their own to take a late 24-21 advantage. With their backs against the wall, the Wolverines then pounded home four-consecutive clutch points to take a 25-24 lead. The two sides traded points from there until UVU managed to claim an epic rally with a Jarema kill and followed it up with Tarawhiti's 10th kill of the night to take the second set in extra points, 28-26, and tie the match at 1-1. The first-team All-WAC performer Tarawhiti led UVU with six kills in the set, while second-team All-WAC honoree Jarema added five blocks.

With the third set knotted up at 9-9 following a solo block from Jarama, UW then pieced together a 4-1 run to take a 13-10 advantage. UVU then bounced back with three unanswered points capped by a BriAnne Mortensen ace to again tie the tightly contested set at 13-13. The Pokes again responded with four straight to take a 17-13 lead. Utah Valley later made it 18-16 on a Bailey Nixon kill, but back answered UW with a trio of points to make it 21-16. Trailing 22-17, UVU then pounded home consecutive kills from Allred and a pair from Tarawhiti to make it 22-20. UW responded to take a 24-20 set-point advantage, but the Wolverines wouldn't go away by driving home a trio of clutch points to make it 24-23. The senior Davies capped the spurt with a kill. The Pokes then took the set on the very next point on a controversial touch call at the net to take a 2-1 lead in the postseason match.

Wyoming continued to hold the upper hand in the fourth game by building an early 9-4 lead following a 4-0 spurt. UVU countered back by scoring six of the next seven to tie the score at 10-10. Allred pounded home a pair of kills during the spurt, while Tarawhiti and Niutupuivaha added a kill apiece. Later trailing 15-11, the Wolverines got a pair of points back on via an Allred kill and a UW attack error to make it 15-13. Trailing 18-14, UVU responded with three unanswered points to pull within a point at 18-17. Down just a point at 19-18 after a Downs kill, the Mountain West Cowgirls responded with a pair of points to take a 21-18 lead. Trailing 22-19, UVU then responded with six unanswered clutch points to earn a 25-22 come-from-behind fourth-set victory. Downs and Allred started the spurt with back-to-back kills, while a UW error, a Jarema and Davies block assist and a Jarema kill gave the Wolverines the late lead before Wardle ended it with a timely ace.

With UVU trailing by just one at 5-4 in the fifth set following an Allred kill, the Pokes managed to drive home consecutive points to take a 7-4 advantage. Utah Valley then responded with three-straight points to tie the score at 7-7. Jarema had a block and a kill during the stretch, while Wardle added an ace. Still tied at 8-8, UW then managed to record back-to-back points to take a 10-8 lead. The Wolverines bounced back by scoring three of the next four to tie the fifth game at 11-11. After a Wyoming point, UVU got a kill from Tarawhiti followed by a Niutupuivaha and Tarawhiti block assist to take a late 13-12 lead. The Pokes then got a point back, but UVU took a 14-13 match-point advantage on a UW service error. Wyoming then got a big kill from Emily Lewis to tie the epic fifth set at 14-all and followed it up with a McArdle kill on a long rally to its first match-point advantage at 15-14.

The Pokes were the first to pull ahead in the opening set, as they jumped out to a 12-5 advantage following a kill from Haile McArdle. The Wolverines later made it 15-8 on a Makaila Jarema kill, but back answered the Cowgirls with a 4-0 run to stretch their lead to 19-8. UVU got a pair of kills from Tarawhiti and another point from a UW attack error down the stretch, but it wasn't enough as Wyoming took the opener by a score of 25-11.

McArdle led Wyoming in the losing effort with 19 kills and 16 digs.

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In the other match of the Laramie Regional, Portland (19-12, 6-12 WCC) of the West Coast Conference swept Northern Colorado of the Big Sky, 3-0, to advance to Friday's second round. UVU will now face Portland in round two of the NIVC on Friday at 6:30 p.m. MT, at UW's UniWyo Sports Complex. The contest will be streamed live on the Mountain West Digital Network. The winner of the match will then advance to next week's third round, while the loser's season will come to a close.

"The team is doing some good things right now. We'll celebrate this win for a couple of hours and then move on and prepare for Portland," Atoa added. "I'm very proud of the way that the girls represented our school, the athletic department and the conference here tonight."