Utah Valley University volleyball's second comeback attempt in as many nights fell short in a 3-2 setback to Portland in the second round of the National Invitational Volleyball Championship on Friday evening at the UniWyo Sports Complex in Laramie (19-25, 25-16, 27-29, 29-27, 17-19).
After completing a similar comeback in five sets against the host Wyoming Cowgirls in the first round of the NIVC on Thursday, UVU (20-14) looked primed for another five-set comeback in round two of the tournament. Instead, the Pilots (20-12) of the West Coast Conference managed to overcome a pair of match-point deficits in the fifth and final set on their way to pulling out the thrilling victory and ending Utah Valley's 2018 season.
The Wolverines finish their 2018 campaign with their first 20-win season since 2011 (23-9) and their first national postseason appearance in their Division I history with the NIVC berth. UVU also entered the week with its best RPI ranking in program history at No. 92 and advanced to the WAC Tournament title match a week ago for the second time in the past three years. The Wolverines also recorded their first national postseason win in program history with their thrilling come-from-behind victory over the host Cowgirls on Thursday.
"It was a great effort, but unfortunately we fell just short in the final score. It's hard to see the season come to an end because it's been a great ride. What we've done from day one to now has been wonderful," head UVU coach Sam Atoa said. "It will be hard to see those that won't be returning leave us, but it's been a great year."
In the decisive fifth set, the Wolverines looked determined to complete another comeback by erupting out to a quick 6-0 lead. Second-team All-WAC performer Makaila Jarema led the stretch with a trio of blocks and a kill. The Pilots battled back with seven of the next eight points to erase the deficit and tie things up at 7-7. The score stayed tight from there as both teams seemed to match one another point for point until UVU reeled off three straight on a UP error, a Kristen Allred block and an Allred kill to take a 12-9 advantage. Portland again erased the deficit with three-straight points of its own to deadlock the score at 12-12. UVU later took a 14-13 match-point advantage on a Portland service error and another one at 15-14 following a Jarema kill, but UP managed to tie things up on both occasions.
With Portland later holding a 16-15 match-point advantage of its own, UVU got a kill from Kazna Tarawhiti to even the score one more time at 16-16. The Pilots again answered with a point to take another match-point advantage at 17-16, but Utah Valley again responded with a Jasmine Niutupuivaha kill to deadlock the score at 17-all. UP managed to counter for the final time, however, with a kill from Liz Reich followed by another from Izzy Guizik to take the tightly contested final set, 19-17, and the match.
Second-team All-WAC honoree Allred led the way for UVU offensively in the contest with 16 kills on .220 hitting. She also added a double-double with 12 digs. Jarema followed with 11 kills on .333 hitting along with six blocks, while the WAC Freshman of the Year Tarawhiti too notched double figures in kills with 10. Niutupuivaha, senior Alexis Davies and Kaili Downs finished with seven kills apiece, and Niutupuivaha tallied a team-high seven blocks. BriAnne Mortensen dished out 21 assists and 11 digs for a double-double, and Seren Merrill led the way from the back row with a team-best 21 digs.
The West Coast Conference Pilots were the first to get things going in the opening set, as they jumped out to a quick 10-5 lead. Following a timeout, the Wolverines countered with a 7-2 run to tie the score at 12-12. Allred and Madi Wardle both drilled home service aces for UVU during the stretch. UP countered with a trio of points to take a 15-12 lead. With the Wolverines down 20-16, Utah Valley managed to drive home back-to-back points to make it 20-18. The Pilots then struck back with five of the next six points on their way to taking the opening set by a score of 25-19.
Utah Valley looked strong early in the second set, as it built a quick 11-3 advantage. Tarawhiti drove home a pair of kills, a service ace and a block during the early run, while Downs capped the spurt with back-to-back kills of her own. UP responded with a 5-1 run to make it 12-8. The Wolverines then answered with four of the next five points to extend their lead to 16-9. Leading 17-13, UVU extended its lead to 24-14 following a key 8-1 run that included two more kills from the freshman Downs and an ace from Jaysa Funk Stratton. After a pair of Portland points, UVU put the set away to tie the match at 1-1 on a UP service error. Downs led the Wolverines in the set with four kills on .571 hitting.
Portland responded in the opening stages of the third game by building an early 6-2 lead. The Wolverines then quickly bounced back by scoring six of the next seven points thanks in large part to a trio of kills from Jasmine Niutupuivaha to take an 8-7 advantage. The set remained tight from there until UVU managed to piece together a 4-1 run to take an 18-15 lead. Allred capped the spurt for the Wolverines with back-to-back kills. UP later struck back with a 6-2 run to take a late 22-21 lead. Utah Valley quickly erased the deficit with consecutive points on an Alexis Davies kill and a Portland error to take a 23-22 advantage. UVU held a 24-23 set-point advantage following a UP service error, but the Pilots responded with consecutive points to take a 25-24 set-point lead of their own. UVU then fought off set point a couple of occasions with clutch kills from Allred and Jarema, but Portland went on to take the tightly contested third set, 29-27, and take a 2-1 lead in the match.
Utah Valley looked to have another comeback attempt in it as it jumped out to a 9-5 advantage in the fourth set. Up 9-7, the Wolverines countered with a Jarema kill and a Merrill service ace to extend its lead back to four at 11-7. Holding a 12-9 lead, UVU again managed to reel off five straight to take its biggest lead of the set at 17-9. Utah Valley capped the spurt with a block and a kill from Niutupuivaha. The Pilots wouldn't go away, however, as they made it a 18-15 score after reeling of a 6-1 run. Up 22-18 following a Davies kill, UP again countered with four unanswered points to erase the deficit and tie the game at 22-22.
The Wolverines then put a stop to the Portland run with back-to-back blocks from Niutupuivaha and Tarawhiti, as well as Niutupuivaha and Downs, to take a 24-22 set-point advantage. The Pilots countered back with a clutch 3-0 spurt to take a 25-24 match-point advantage of their own, but UVU answered with back-to-back Allred kills to pull ahead 26-25. Later deadlocked at 27-27, Utah Valley took advantage of a UP service error followed by another Tarawhiti kill to take the set, 29-27, and force a fifth game for the second-consecutive day.Comment on this story
In the contest, junior middle blocker Jarema became UVU's single-season school record holder in block assists with her 174th block assist of the year early in the first set. The second-team All-WAC performer Jarema passed former Wolverine great Madison Dennison's previous 2017 record of 173. With six block assists in the contest, Jarema now holds the record with 179. She also entered the match ranked second in the nation in blocks per set (1.78).
The match marked UVU's 14th five-set affair of the season.
"No one should hang their heads," Atoa added. "We've accomplished a lot and maybe even more than some probably thought we would this season. It was a great season."
Portland will now advance to next week's third round of the NIVC and will host Mountain West foe UNLV.