WACO, Texas – You’ve got to be a little salty to get past the Sweet 16, and the Washington volleyball team showed ample grit in getting it done.
The eighth-seeded Huskies relied on a feisty defensive effort, including several timely blocks down the stretch, to thwart No. 9 Kentucky, 25-16, 26-24, 15-25, 25-22, in the NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16 on Friday at Baylor’s Ferrell Center. UW (27-6) moves on to the regional final to face top-seeded and host Baylor (28-1) at 1 p.m. Pacific Saturday.
Kentucky definitely made the Huskies work for it. But facing the prospect of a fifth set, Washington pulled together and closed things out with a 4-1 run in the fourth to survive and advance.
“Pleased with our composure there in the end, thought we lost ourselves in the third set,” UW coach Keegan Cook said. “We steadied out in the fourth and I think these two (Kara Bajema and Ella May Powell) were a big part of that, obviously, getting steadied out. A great match, and what a great start to this regional. Excited for our kids to have an opportunity to play more volleyball.”
Washington hit .448 in the opening set and .435 in the second to bounce out to a 2-0 lead. But Kentucky (25-7), co-champions of the SEC, completely stole away the momentum in the third. SEC Player of the Year Leah Edmond, who had 17 kills, and the Wildcats consistently got the Huskies out of system and rolled to a convincing 25-15 set win.
In the timeout between sets, Cook challenged his players to get back to who they had been all year.
“It’s the hardest thing, to be in that environment,” Cook said. “It had just gone really bad and I could sense that the communication was dropping and the frustrations were rising, and I told them, ‘You get to choose right now, how you want to be in this fourth set. Is it just going to be your emotions, or are you going to choose your principles?’ And, again, a bunch of people turned it around to snap back to who they were and got back to work. It’s never going to be perfect, but it was certainly enough today.”
Washington twice held a three-point lead in the fourth set, but Kentucky kept grinding away to extend points and fight back. Trailing 21-20 late, the heavy-hitting Bajema rose up for consecutive clutch kills for the Huskies to spark the final push. On match point, Powell finally put the Wildcats away when she delivered a perfect second-touch dump for the win.
“I think it was a pretty fast pass,” said Powell, who had four kills to go with 37 assists, three service aces and six digs. “I didn’t have much time to get in position (for a set), I guess. I’m glad it worked out. That’s pretty cool, made me feel like a hitter a little bit.”
Bajema came up huge for UW again, tallying a double-double with 24 kills and 13 digs while hitting .400 for the match. Afterward, she was all smiles as she reveled in the opportunity to play for UW’s first Final Four trip since 2013.
“It’s exciting. I think it’s so exciting because this is a special group,” Bajema said. “Freshman year to be able to make it to this (Elite Eight) point, and knowing that feeling and then being able to get back to this point again, I think that’s special.”
Avie Niece was another Husky who stepped up in a big way to put the finishing touches on the win. She had four kills and three block assists in the fourth set alone, and finished with eight kills and six blocks for the game.
“Avie Niece, what a match she had to make some big plays for us and keep us organized in the biggest moments,” said Cook, whose team finished with eight blocks overall. “I was really, really impressed with our blocking at the end.”
Cook said all facets of UW’s game will have to be on point for Saturday’s regional final against Baylor. But he believes his team won’t be intimidated by the moment.
“They’re every bit as good as I thought they’d be,” Cook said of the Bears, who defeated Purdue, 3-1, in Friday’s other Sweet 16 match in Waco. “In person, some things are even more impressive than they are on film. Great environment, but we took our team on the road for the first six weeks of the season.
“We played in some big venues. Everything was designed for this moment. There’s only two ways to get to the Final Four – you’re either winning at home or winning at someone’s place. These guys have done the work, and I’m glad they get the opportunity to go for it.”