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UNLV volleyball whips Utah in NCAA opener

PROVO, Utah — Embracing the role of underdog, the UNLV volleyball team brushed aside years of nonparticipation in the NCAA tournament and nonsuccess against No. 22 Utah on Friday.

The end result was a 27-25, 25-21, 19-25, 25-20 victory at Brigham Young to advance to the second round of the NCAA tournament on Saturday. The Rebels will face the host Cougars, who defeated Princeton on Friday, at 6 p.m.

“It’d be an understatement to say we feel pretty good about it,” UNLV coach Cindy Fredrick said. “I think we felt good coming in because we felt our matchups were good.”

After the match, Fredrick noted that her team’s selection to the tournament was considered unwarranted by some.

“A lot of people said that we didn’t necessarily belong here. But we felt like we did from the get-go,” said Fredrick. “We take those things personally. These guys fight every day.”

A balanced offensive attack for UNLV (24-7) was led by senior Bree Hammel, who had 18 kills from the right side. Outside attacker Sadie Stutzman popped 14 kills from the left, while middle hitters Ashley Owens and Elsa Descamps combined for 15 more putaways.

UNLV led for most of the first set, but it wasn’t until the end — and consecutive kills by Hammel — that the Rebels claimed that game.

The second set followed a similar pattern. Up 23-21, UNLV got a kill from Descamps and then a back-row hitting penalty on the Utes to go up 2-0 in the match.

Utah (20-12), led by junior Adora Anae’s 21 kills, rebounded to take the third set in what turned out to be the Rebels’ only hiccup in the contest.

In the fourth set, however, UNLV’s overall consistency stood in marked contrast to a Utes team that became error-prone in the late stages. A sharp serve by Hammel forced a bad pass and led to a kill by Stutzman up front to tie the game at 19.

Utah missed hits three times to go along with blocks by Stutzman and setter Alexis Patterson in a 6-1 UNLV run to end the set and match.

Fredrick said Patterson’s attacking style at the setter position was a huge asset in the victory.

“That’s something I’ve been practicing since the day I got to UNLV — even before that actually,” said Patterson, who scored seven kills to go along with assisting on 49 others. “I remember, when they were recruiting me, telling me they wanted me to be an attacking setter.

“When we came in today, all of the coaches said that in order for our offense to run quick, catch them off guard, I needed to be aggressive in the front row.”

The match marked UNLV’s second appearance in the NCAA tournament and first victory.

Just as sparse historically has been UNLV’s success against Utah. The Utes had a 29-4 series lead before the former Western Athletic Conference and Mountain West rivals met up again Friday.

Utah had been consistently ranked in the national volleyball polls since late September and the Utes featured two rotation regulars who played high school ball in the Las Vegas area: sophomore Emma Kirst from Bishop Gorman and freshman Berkeley Oblad from Coronado.

That was something not lost on the Rebels’ coach after the win.

“We have two Vegas girls playing for them,” Fredrick said. “We want to show them that they should have stayed and played with us.”

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