UW overcame a slow start to advance to the second round of tournament play for the 15th-straight year

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The eighth-seeded UW Huskies were heavily favored in their NCAA volleyball tournament opening-round match against Texas A&M Corpus Christi, and for the 15th straight year, they lived up to expectations, advancing to the second round with a 3-0 sweep of the Southland Conference champions at Alaska Airlines Arena on Friday night.

UW, the Pac-12 champion, will now play Kentucky in the second round on Saturday night. The Wildcats (23-7) beat Colorado State in the first of Friday’s two matches to advance.

On the strength of 10 kills each from outside hitter Crissy Jones and freshman middle blocker Kara Bajema, the Huskies beat Corpus Christi, 25-18, 25-14, 25-14.

But the sweep didn’t start as cleanly as it ended. Despite Corpus Christi’s relative size disadvantage –three starters listed at 6-foot or over vs. the Huskies’ five 6-footers – the Islanders kept UW on its toes through the first half of the match.

The Huskies (25-6) started slow, trading points with Corpus Christi (24-8) early. The Islanders got three kills each from Madison Woods, Morgan Carlson and Madison Fitzsimmons to hang within two points of UW for most of the first set.

“I thought the things they did were outstanding,” UW  coach Keegan Cook said. “Their speed gave us problems for most of their night, their setter (Kristyn Nicholson) was quite active around the net. What they do works and works well.”

UW pulled away toward the end of the set, riding two service aces from setter Bailey Tanner to go on a 7-0 run and close out the opening set 25-18.

That momentum carried the Huskies through the start of their second set and their strong serving helped them jump to a 6-1 lead. But the Islanders kept the Huskies from getting comfortable.

Plagued by four attack errors, the Huskies allowed Corpus Christi to tie the score at 11-11, and Cook calleda  timeout to settle his team.

“It was more about us being us,” said senior outside hitter Courtney Schwan, the Pac-12 Player of the Year. “I don’t think we were playing to our full capability and that’s on us. We had to change what we were doing and pick it up and figure it out together.”

Things improved for UW after the timeout and the Huskies went on a 10-0 run to win the set 25-14.

Cook said it took his team some time to get used to Corpus Christi’s style of play.

“Their speed on film and in person are different,” Cook said. “They got their offense going and moved it along the net quick. Just how fast they run their offense gave us issues.”

UW evolved and adapted throughout the match, especially after Cook emphasized a need for every player to “block their own player instead of trying to get multiple blockers on one player.”

By the third set, the Huskies had settled down, and they went on a late 9-0 run to shut down the Islanders.

Outside hitter Tia Scambray led UW defensively with 12 digs, while freshman libero Shayne McPherson had 11.

UW’s next opponent will pose a much greater challenge. Kentucky, which finished the regular season third in the SEC and ranked 24th in the final American Volleyball Coaches Association top 25 poll, is considered the No. 2 seed in this four-team pod.

Led by freshman outside hitter Leah Edmond’s 20 kills, the Wildcats beat Colorado State 3-1 on Friday afternoon.

“They’re a really good team. They’re tall, physical and play really good volleyball,” UW’s Jones said. “One thing we can learn from this match and take into the next one is that every team is good and every team can challenge us, and every team is physical. You’ve gotta be ready and we’ve got to be ourselves and put on our best fight.”