The University of Colorado women's volleyball team is off to Minneapolis, Minn., to take on the University of South Carolina Friday afternoon at 3:30 p.m. MT for the first round of the 2018 NCAA Tournament.
The Buffaloes (18-13, 10-10 Pac-12) are in familiar territory in their 20th
appearance in the postseason in program history. This is the fourth appearance in Minnesota for the program in the postseason, with the team earning a 1-1 record in first round action. The first-ever postseason appearance for the program in 1989 was a first round loss to Minnesota in Minneapolis.
CU's counterpart in the first round is South Carolina (19-9, 10-8 SEC). The Gamecocks are returning to the big dance for the first time since 2002 after earning an at-large bid due to their strong conference play early in the season. South Carolina has been a streaky team, winning its first four matches by a set-score of 12-1. They started their overall season with a 13-1 record with a lone loss to Rice on the road. Of the 13 wins to start the season, eight came by way of sweeps. A sweep by Missouri ended a nine-match win streak and started a stretch where the Gamecocks went 2-5 including four losses by sweeps. A five-set homestand against No.20-Missouri reignited the team to four-straight wins, but the team has finished on a downslide with three-straight losses at LSU, against Kentucky and at Florida.
The Gamecock's most dangerous weapon as a team is the service game. South Carolina boasts the 28th
-best serving game in the nation and lead the SEC with 1.57 aces per set.
Both teams have a nearly identical hitting percentage at .237 for South Carolina and .238 for Colorado. The Buffs edge their opponent by an assist per set more and nearly a full kill per set. CU also has a more prominent defensive game with 14.3 digs per set compared to just 13. The defensive battle heavily favors Colorado with 319 total team blocks compared to just 191. The Gamecocks are averaging 1.8 blocks per set while CU is at 2.7, good for 24th
in the nation.
The key for Colorado is going to be their ability to quickly sideout, especially when Aubrey Ezell is at the service line. The libero is second in the nation in aces per set with 0.67 and is third in the nation in total aces this season with 70. If the Buffs can limit her jump serve and sideout to more favorable rotations the superior blocking game should be enough to send CU to the next round.
The Gamecocks, under the supervision of first-year head coach Tom Mendoza, were led by two All-SEC players at right side and in the middle. Junior Mikayla Shields leads the team with 335 kills but has not had a single 20-kill match this season. She is hitting a respectable .272, has 26 aces, nearly 250 digs and 57 blocks. The other All-SEC performer is sophomore middle Mikayla Robinson who leads her team with 96 blocks and has a team-high .298 hitting percentage. She also has 225 total kills.
An all-around performance is needed for CU in this postseason as the team has the talent to make a push back into the Sweet 16. Colorado has an abundance of hitters that have proven ability to put away the ball. Alexa Smith
is the go-to hitter in most occasions and picked up 22 kills recently at Oregon State. Justine Spann
showed what she could do last week with 17 kills in a sweep of UCLA, including 14 in the first two sets. Anyse Smith
is a huge power-hitter for the Buffaloes and has improved in consistency with five-straight matches of 11 or more kills. Finally for Colorado, senior middle Naghede Abu
is the most efficient player in school history. She has exceeded 11 kills in four of the past five matches, including three performances of hitting .460 or better.
Despite the wealth of hitting, the biggest concern for Colorado is the passing game. Rachel Whipple
has taken the reins for the backrow, proving her reception ability with only a single reception error in the past four matches. She also has marks of 21, 24 and 25 digs in the same stretch for the Buffaloes, leading the team in the mark all four matches. With the 5-1 system in action Colorado is able to substitute more efficiently, which allows for the addition of Gabby Carta-Samuels
in the back row with Whipple, Alexa Smith
and Spann, all of which have seasons of 300 or more digs under their belts.
A strong passing game opens up the offense, specifically the middle play where Abu and Danielle Price
are effective quick-fire options that have just 11 combined errors with 127 swings and 58 kills in the final four matches. The middle duo has hit .370 from the center of the court for CU in the stretch and have a .341 average this season with an outstanding .468 kills per attempt average.
Friday's match will be streamed by Minnesota Athletics and is available here
. Should Colorado advance along with host and No.2-ranked Minnesota, the match Saturday will move to an 8 p.m. CT start and will be televised by the BIG TEN Network. For more information and game-time updates, follow Colorado Volleyball on Twitter at @cubuffsvb.