Against Oregon in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, the Michigan volleyball team found itself facing adversity after dropping the first set. But the 12th-seeded Wolverines showed no signs of panic. They fought back to defeat the Ducks, 3-1, on Friday night at Crisler Center to advance to the NCAA Tournament Round of 16.
Buoyed by a spectacular performance from junior middle blocker Claire Kieffer-Wright, whose 20 kills and .730 kill percentage both represented career-highs, Michigan hit .344 as a team in what doubled as the final home match for seniors Abby Cole, Ally Davis and Kelly Murphy. Cole, a unanimous all-Big Ten selection at middle blocker, contributed with 11 kills of her own, while the Wolverines as a team racked up 15 blocks on defense.
Michigan (11-9 Big Ten, 24-10 overall) rolled over American on Thursday night to begin its postseason with a three-set sweep. But Oregon (13-7 Pac-12, 21-10 overall) proved to be much more formidable opposition.
During the opening set, the aggressive and athletic Ducks asserted themselves early on, especially up front. Middle blockers Taylor Agost and Ronika Stone led a balanced Ducks attack, and though the margin was never more than three points, the Ducks drew first blood, outhitting the Wolverines .323 to .194 and winning the set 25-22.
“(The Ducks are) really good when they’re in system,” said Michigan coach Mark Rosen. “They’re really good when they control the ball well, and they come at you with a lot of pace and a lot of variety. In the first set, they did exactly what we were concerned they could do.”
But mere minutes later, the Wolverines showed what they could do, too.
It was Kieffer-Wright who got Michigan going in the second set. With the score tied at three, she rose up at the net and blocked a shot from Agost, raising her fist in the air in celebration upon landing. She then scored the next two points, first finishing a nifty tip around two Ducks and then smashing down a kill from the right side. When the run was over, the second set had been blown open, 12-4, in the Wolverines’ favor, and they never relinquished this lead on their way to taking the set, 25-17.
“(The 9-1 run was) really uplifting for the team because you know that you’re in a groove and you’re in a rhythm and everyone’s working together as one,” Kieffer-Wright said. “As the night progressed, we became one machine.”
Added Rosen: “Volleyball games tend to go in streaks, not one point here or one point there. Our servers really work hard in practice to be able to go and not just serve one ball aggressively, but serve that same ball three, four, five times.”
The third set, however, proved to be an almost polar opposite of the previous one, as the score was tied on 10 different occasions. Oregon, which held a slim lead for most of the set, pulled ahead 15-12 by the first timeout, but Cole recorded two consecutive kills to bring Michigan back to a tie at 19. With Oregon leading 23-22, Kieffer-Wright put away two kills to put the Wolverines a point away, and junior outside hitter Carly Skjodt then punctuated the set with a block to finish off the tense, back-and-forth affair.
“We spent a lot of the season one or two points behind,” said freshman setter MacKenzi Welsh. “So we’ve gotten really good from those small deficits. That block was a huge turning point for us, and we’ve practiced that all season.”
However, the Ducks weren’t finished, starting the fourth set by roaring to a 6-2 lead. But as always, Michigan was undeterred, rattling off the next five points and eventually going on top by as much as five, picking up intensity with every rally.
At 21-17, the Wolverines began their final push. Skjodt stepped back to serve and drilled two consecutive aces to bring the Wolverines a point away, and Davis closed out the hard-fought match with a kill to clinch Michigan’s first appearance in the Round of 16 since 2012.
With the win, the Wolverines will travel to Austin, Texas, to take on Creighton on Dec. 9, with the winner of that matchup playing either No. 5 Texas or BYU for a place in the Final Four.
“I’m really proud of how our players looked after (the first set),” Rosen said. “We served really aggressively, we out-assisted them, we started defending them and we made some really good adjustments with blocking because they were picking us apart a little bit. I’m just really proud of how we fought through.”
“Fought through” is an apt description of Michigan’s performance on Friday night. It was a slugfest between two talented teams, and at no point was it easy. But the Wolverines earned the right to continue their season.