No. 19 Colorado volleyball survived a scare from Big Sky champion Northern Colorado Friday afternoon to advance to the second round of the NCAA Tournament, 3-1 (25-19, 25-15, 24-26, 25-15).
"We're honored and happy to be advancing to the second round," said head coach Liz Kritza. "That was a battle. A lot of times, the score doesn't reflect how difficult it is on the court. Credit to UNC, and (UNC head coach) Lyndsey (Oates), they're a well-coached team, but I'm proud of my players and staff for coming back when we dropped that set."
The Buffs jumped out to a quick 5-1 lead in the first set, and didn't look back, never relinquishing the lead. Northern Colorado did force Kritza to burn a timeout after closing to within three, 17-14. But Colorado concluded the first set comfortably, with all-Pac-12 outside hitter Taylor Simpson slamming home a kill to jump to a 1-0 lead in the match.
Taylor Simpson notched her ninth 20-plus kill performance of the season, finishing with 21 on the day. The senior from Colorado Springs was also stellar defensively, adding 10 digs.
Once again, Colorado started fast in the second set, but UNC got the Buffs stuck in rotation, rattling off five straight points to tie the game at seven, prompting Kritza to call for time.
Out of the timeout, CU went on a 12-5 run, taking a commanding 19-12 second set lead. Taylor Simpson tallied eight kills in the second frame, and Colorado took a 2-0 lead into the locker room.
Northern Colorado started the third set on fire, taking a 7-1 lead, forcing Kritza to take an early timeout. Alexis Austin tied the set at 11, but a Gabby Simpson attack error and an Alex Kloehn kill gave UNC the lead back. The Buffs went on a 4-0 run with defensive specialist Gwen Herring behind the service line, but the Bears countered to tie the set at 20.
An Austin kill at 23-23 gave CU match point, but Kloehn prolonged the match with a kill. Two points later, UNC extended the match into a fourth set, as Andrea Spaustat tipped a ball just out of the reach of the Colorado defense.
"That third set, they pinned us in a couple rotations," said Kritza. "We weren't able to sideout. They did a good job being very aggressive, making our players that were scoring points for us offensively handle the ball."
The service line was key for the Buffs in the decisive fourth set. Taylor Simpson rattled off four straight points behind the line to give CU a quick 6-2 lead. Gabby Simpson snapped off six straight, and the serving duo of Herring and Kelsey English strung eight consecutive points together, giving the Buffs a 20-7 lead.
Kritza used the large lead to give Taylor Simpson a breather, getting freshman Stephanie Shadley, sophomore Katherine Hawkins, and senior Rachel Hargis into the rotation for the first time in the fourth set. Austin put the match to bed with her 16th kill of the afternoon.
Colorado advances to play No. 9 Colorado State tomorrow at 4:30 p.m. CSU beat Denver 3-0 (25-21, 25-17, 25-22) following the CU vs. UNC match.
"I would say that we're battle tested, because we have played the Washingtons, we have played the Stanfords." said Taylor Simpson. "It's tough to play those teams night in and night out."
Added Kritza: "This is as familial as it gets, this is as prideful as it gets for this state. I think that all four teams here are representing the state really well, and we're really honored to be a piece of it.