A Sweet 16 trip beckoned Baylor at the summit. But the Bears couldn’t conquer the Rocky Mountain looming in front of them.
Colorado’s towering blockers constructed a wall at the net, consistently stuffing the 12th-seeded Bears on their attacks all match long. The Buffs even fittingly delivered a block on match point in denying Baylor, 25-12, 25-22, 25-20, in the NCAA tournament’s second round on Saturday night at the Ferrell Center.
The Buffs (24-9) outblocked Baylor, 13-4, to put an abrupt end to the Bears’ season. It was an uncharacteristically ragged showing by the Bears (24-7), who were swept for only the third time all season.
But Colorado had a lot to do with that. Topped by junior middle blocker Naghede Abu, who was named the Waco Regional’s Most Outstanding Player, the Buffs thoroughly dominated at the net, hitting .320 to Baylor’s .161 percentage.
The Bears left the court in tears, and it marked the final action for the team’s four seniors – Camryn Freiberg, Jana Brusek, Tola Itiola and Katie Staiger. Baylor coach Ryan McGuyre said that the impact of that group can’t be quantified, and “when we do eventually win it all, they’ll be a part of that.”
Colorado, conversely, couldn’t have been more excited, knowing it had vanquished an extremely talented opponent on its home court. The Buffs screamed “Sweet 16! Sweet 16!” in the locker room afterward. Reaching that round of the tournament for the first time since 1997, they’ll face fifth-seeded Nebraska next weekend.
The Bears, who played with such precision and energy in a first-round sweep of Miami of Ohio on Friday, couldn’t replicate that on Saturday. Colorado blasted to an 11-3 at the start of the opening set, and the Bears didn’t help matters with some shaky passes after the Buffs’ high, hard spikes. Baylor, which produced 59 digs in the three-set win over the Redhawks, managed just 40 against the Buffs. Normally rock-steady libero Brusek had a rough outing, finishing with just five digs.
After dropping the opening set 25-12, Baylor tried to swing its way back in the second set, and the Bears were effective in keeping the score closer. But they couldn’t ever get over the hump. They trailed 21-20 late in the set when All-Pac-12 hitter Alexa Smith smashed a hammering kill through the Bears’ defense. Abu added a block and a kill as the Buffs grabbed three of the next five points in seizing an overwhelming 2-0 lead in the match.
Abu finished with seven kills and eight blocks. Smith bagged 14 kills, tying Baylor’s Yossiana Pressley for match-leading honors, while Frankie Shebby chipped in 11 for the Buffs.
Baylor had rallied from only one 2-0 deficit for a win this season, when it battled back to beat then-No. 10 BYU at the Hawaii Tournament. And the Bears had stretches where they displayed the power and precision that marked their season, led by players who will be back for another go-round next year in Pressley, Aniah Philo (14 digs) and Shelly Fanning (10 kills in 19 swings).
But one third-set sequence summed up Baylor’s night. Trailing 22-16, Pressley skied for what appeared to be a no-doubt kill. Instead, the Buffs dug the ball out, and seconds later CU’s Smith bashed the ball past the BU defenders for the point.
“Congratulations to Baylor for an amazing season; that was one of the best teams we have played all year,” Colorado coach Jesse Mahoney said. “They should be really proud of their season. They have a couple of freshmen that are going to be stars for years to come and some great upperclassmen.”
Even through the tears, the Bears were able to glean a bit of perspective on all the firsts they achieved this season – first win over Kansas since 2012, first time seeded for the NCAA tournament, and first time ever hosting.
“Definitely disappointed the way it ended,” Staiger said. “We were just talking about it in the locker room, only one team really leaves smiling. But we really did think we were going to go further, so it was disappointing. But still so proud of this team and this program and just the season that we’ve had and the history and the legacy that we’ve made.”