Down five points late in the first set?
No problem for the Washington volleyball team.
Down six points late in the second set?
No problem again for the Huskies.
While it likely wasn’t good for UW coach Keegan Cook’s blood pressure, it sure made it exciting for the fans Saturday night at Alaska Airlines Arena, with the Huskies moving into the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament with a 25-23, 26-24, 25-8 win over South Carolina.
“They certainly had us on our heels in those first two sets,” Cook said. “I certainly liked our response at the end of sets. You’re going to playing two-points games in the tournament somewhere, but I don’t like how we got there, but I like how we finished when we were there. And then in the third set, we reminded ourselves what we are capable of.”
Washington (26-6), ranked No. 9 and the No. 8 overall seed, advances to play Kentucky (25-6) on Friday in Waco, Texas. A Husky win in that match would set up a potential matchup the next night against top seed Baylor in the Elite Eight.
But before looking ahead, the Huskies had reason to celebrate, pulling off unlikely rallies to win the first two sets.
South Carolina (20-12) seemed in control of the first set when it built a 20-15 lead, but the Huskies rallied. With the score tied at 23, Kara Bajema won a point with a kill, and UW took the set on a hitting error by Mikayla Shields.
South Carolina asked for a review on game point, believing her kill attempt was touched by a Husky before going wide, but the call stood.
It would have seemed that would give UW momentum, but South Carolina took control of the second set and had a 19-13 lead. It wasn’t big enough, even though South Carolina served for the match at 24-23. Shields had a service error on game point, and with the crowd on its feet, the Gamecocks’ Mikayla Robinson made two straight hitting errors, and somehow UW had a 2-0 lead.
“We said, ‘Let’s play clean down the stretch and if it goes our way, great, and if it doesn’t, at least we know we’re playing the way we are supposed to play,’ ” Cook said of the first two sets.
Senior Kara Bajema, who had a match-high 18 kills and a .429 hitting percentage in her final home match, said she never lost confidence in either set.
“We’ve been there before a couple of times this season and what this team does best is finish strong,” she said. “We’re not going to stop when we are down five, six or seven points.”
The second straight devastating set loss seemed to deflate South Carolina and invigorate the Huskies.
Washington scored the first seven points of the third set, and there was little suspense thereafter.
But there had been plenty before that. And in the biggest points of the match, the Huskies prevailed almost every time. Because of that, the Huskies are advancing.
“You’ve got to own your success in life,” said Cook, who wants his team to relish the victory before focusing on Kentucky. “I want them to feel it and share their gratitude with those who helped make it happen.”
Shields had 11 kills to lead South Carolina.
Lauren Sanders had six kills in just eight attempts for Washington.
Cook said the Huskies can play much better than they did in the first two rounds against Winthrop and South Carolina, and they will probably need to for the run to continue.
“I’m thrilled to be taking this team to the next round of the tournament, but we’re certainly not satisfied until we are playing Final Four caliber volleyball,” he said.