SEATTLE – The road to KeyArena began at Alaska Airlines Arena tonight, as the third-seeded Husky volleyball team opened NCAA tournament play with a straight set win over SWAC champion Alabama State. The Huskies (27-2) used their size and strength to their advantage in posting a huge 42-11 advantage in kills on the night, and advancing through to the second round of the tournament for the twelfth year in a row.
The Lady Hornets of Alabama State were making their first NCAA tournament appearance after winning the Southwestern Athletic Conference. Washington’s 2,730 fans in attendance made it a memorable atmosphere, but the Pac-12 Champion Huskies left no opening for thoughts of an upset, winning by a count of 25-11, 25-5, 25-16. Washington will now face LSU on Saturday at 7 p.m. after the Tigers came back from 0-2 down to beat Michigan in the first match of the day.
Pac-12 Coach of the Year Jim McLaughlin had a lot of praise for Alabama State and their coach, Penny Lucas-White. “I like Penny’s team, I was a big fan of her when she played on the national team. They had a good season, and I think she does a great job with those kids,” McLaughlin said. “So I’m happy for her and her season. For our team, when we get it going it’s a good deal. Game two, and the end of game one, we were just in a nice rhythm. The girls were having good conversations on the floor, and we talk about the ultimate respect is when you listen. People can talk, but you’ve got to listen. They did a pretty good job … but we’ll have a big challenge in LSU tomorrow night.”
The Huskies hit .372 tonight and held Alabama State to -.090 on offense. Sophomore Cassie Strickland had 10 kills and hit .692, a new career-high. Pac-12 Player of the Year Krista Vansant also had 10 kills and hit .368. Lianna Sybeldon hit .667 with seven kills and three blocks. Jenna Orlandini’s 10 digs led the defense, and Jenni Nogueras and Katy Beals were even with 17 assists apiece.
Kaleigh Nelson put away the first kill of the night from the left. The teams swapped points until an early 5-0 Husky run capped by back-to-back kills from Cassie Strickland and a block from Sybeldon and Muñoz for 7-2 and a Hornets timeout. Vansant missed her first swing of the match, but then quickly got rolling with four kills in a short span to build the lead up to 14-7. Nogueras also tossed an ace in the run. Nelson slammed one crosscourt from the right and then Strickland pounded down an overpass for a 19-10 lead. Beals missed a serve, but the Dawgs then rolled off the final six points in a row to finish the set, 25-11. Strickland’s serve did much of the damage, as the put the Lady Hornets in trouble and earned transition chances for UW, which were put away by Muñoz, Sybeldon and Vansant for set point. Strickland ripped a serve off the arms of a defender and out for an ace on set point. The Huskies hit .455 in set one, with Strickland putting away all five of her swings, and Vansant adding five on eight attempts.
The Huskies opened set two with six of the first seven points, Vansant serving consecutive aces to open up the lead. Melanie Wade then had a big run on serve, with Strickland adding a couple more kills and Sybeldon and Nelson getting out to the pin for a stuff, and Strickland killed another overpass for an 11-2 lead and Alabama State took timeout. Sybeldon spiked one for the sideout and then Strickland dialed up another race, and UW stretched the lead to a dozen at 16-4. Strickland missed a serve, but the Huskies ran away with the final eight points to close out the set, 25-5, their second-biggest set win of the season after a 25-4 win over Coppin State. Washington rolled to a .667 attack percentage, putting down 10 kills on 15 swings without an error, and Strickland killed all four of her attempts again, moving up to 9-for-9 through two sets.
The Hornets took their first lead with the first two points of the third set, but the Huskies answered with five in a row. Senior Gabbi Parker started the set in the middle and got an early kill. A solo block from Sybeldon made it 7-3 Huskies. Muñoz found the far corner for 10-5, then Vansant put two more away in a 4-0 run to push the lead to 14-7 and prompt an Alabama State timeout. Orlandini floated an ace off the defense for a 16-7 lead. Coach McLaughlin was able to use the chance to sub in defensive specialists Kim Condie and Justice Magraw midway through the set. It was the first appearance for both players since the Coppin State match on Sept. 19, and the first taste of NCAA tourney competition for both. Alabama State hung tough in the third, as some errors crept in for both teams, and they cut the deficit to five points on several occasions, but could get no closer. Parker had a kill and then teamed with Vansant for a stuff, and then Parker put down a 50-50 ball above the net to end it, 25-16.
Washington will now take on LSU on Saturday for a spot in the round of 16. The Tigers stunned Michigan in the first match this evening, rallying from two sets down, including a 25-9 loss in the second set, to win a five-set thriller. First serve will be 7 p.m. tomorrow.