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UNLV volleyball exhales after earning NCAA Tournament bid

Ellease Crumpton’s excitement wasn’t going to be contained.

Originally seated on the floor of the living room where UNLV’s volleyball team anxiously awaited its NCAA Tournament verdict Sunday, the graduate transfer leaped to her feet with a hand over her mouth as soon as ESPN’s selection show announced that the Rebels had, indeed, made the cut.

Once reality set in, Crumpton began jumping up and down before dapping up nearby teammates and dancing in excitement.

“I never made it to the NCAA in any of my years playing (at Arkansas),” she said. “So I’m very excited. I’m just excited.”

UNLV will head to Jenny Craig Pavilion in San Diego for a first-round matchup with No. 7 seed Washington State at 5 p.m. Thursday. the Rebels’ second trip to the NCAA Tournament in three seasons.

But Crumpton and the Rebels didn’t make Selection Sunday easy on themselves. UNLV cruised to a 26-4 record and won the Mountain West regular-season title, but a surprise loss to Utah State in the conference tournament semifinals put the Rebels’ NCAA Tournament dreams in question.

However, the Rebels’ No. 24 position in the national RPI (rating percentage index) was high enough to help them secure an at-large bid.

“It was just incredible,” fifth-year coach Dawn Sullivan said. “It’s what you want as a coach, to see them fulfill their dreams of being able to play in the postseason at the NCAA Tournament.”

The Rebels are beginning to make tournament appearances a regular occurrence under Sullivan. She guided UNLV to an NCAA Tournament berth and a first-round win during her third season in Las Vegas, despite the COVID-19 pandemic making scheduling a nightmare. UNLV then won the National Invitational Volleyball Championship in 2021, beating Crumpton and Arkansas along the way.

The NIVC tournament was Crumpton’s introduction to Sullivan and UNLV, and when she had the chance to transfer, the middle blocker remembered the Rebels’ camaraderie, which swayed her to join Sullivan in the desert.

“I’ve never been on a team this close,” Crumpton said.

UNLV won its first five games of the season before falling to fellow tournament team Miami (Florida) in five sets. The Rebels’ most important win came Sept. 9, when UNLV beat Kansas of the Big 12 3-1.

Sullivan credited her staff, players and the support of the athletic department and the university for helping her build a nationally competitive program.

The Rebels’ momentum continued with a 17-1 season in the Mountain West. But the conference tournament, held in Colorado Springs, Colorado, was a bit of a speed bump.

UNLV was the No. 1 seed, but was swept by Utah State, putting significant doubt on the Rebels’ chances to earn an NCAA Tournament bid.

“We were hoping to go so badly,” outside hitter Isabel Martin said.

In the end, the Rebels did just enough during the regular season to ensure their place. UNLV was one of only five schools outside the Power Five to earn an at-large bid, along with the Mid-American Conference’s Ball State and West Coast Conference teams BYU, Loyola Marymount and Pepperdine.

“It doesn’t matter whether you’re Power Five,” Sullivan said. “It’s about how you walk on the court, how you compete, what you do every single day in the gym and who you are as people. … Your job is to show up, perform at the best of your abilities and do it with all your heart.

“If you can do it with all your heart, that’s really special.”

Contact reporter Andy Yamashita at ayamashita@reviewjournal.com. Follow @ANYamashita on Twitter.

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