Oregon volleyball opens the NCAA Tournament as the No. 10 seed

A week and a half ago, the Oregon volleyball team looked to be in prime position to be selected as one of the top-16 seeds of the upcoming NCAA tournament. One of the major benefits to being nominated as a top-16 team is that the team would be able to stay at home for the first two rounds as a host-site.

The Ducks were riding high, in the midst of a three-game winning streak, all over ranked opponents, before that came crashing down as Oregon lost its final two games. Those losses to No. 23 Utah and unranked Oregon State to end the regular season put Oregon’s shot as a top-16 seed in grave jeopardy.

“I mean I know shouldn’t (have doubted us hosting) because I was pretty sure that was it (after USC),” Moore said. “This is such a strange activity that we do, that your whole existence occurs at the end of something you do and you’re absolutely flying high or you’re just miserable.”

Luckily for the Ducks, the NCAA selection committee looked at their overall body of work and believed Oregon to be more than deserving of a host team. On Sunday evening, the Ducks found out that they were selected as the No. 10 seed, the highest ranking they’ve received all year, and would play host to Santa Clara, LSU and Oklahoma.

“The two losses (to end the season) kind of put a damper on things, but then getting ranked tenth in the NCAA Tournament, I think that’s huge,” senior Liz Brenner said. “That was the highest we’ve been ranked all year so I think we’re feeling good and ready to go.”

Oregon’s “body of work” was among one of the best in the nation as the Ducks had a rating percentage index ranking of No. 10 in the nation. The RPI is a computerized ranking that combines a team’s wins, losses and strength of schedule to determine where they rank in the nation.

Out of the Ducks’ 30 matches on the season, 15 of them came against nationally ranked opponents, while another two of them came against squads who were receiving votes for the rankings. Oregon had arguably one of the tougher second halves of any team when it played 12 out of its final 15 matches against ranked opponents, including No. 1 Stanford once and No. 3 Washington twice.

“I think our season turned on the (first) loss against Stanford,” Moore said. “We did many things wrong after that, we just panicked – to scramble through it and finish where we finished and to get the 11 wins, I think that was huge.”

For Brenner – arguably the most influential player in the history of Oregon volleyball – this is her last chance to win a national championship. She has been to the NCAA Tournament the past three years, being a part of Oregon’s 2012 run to the national championship, but Moore believes that if the Ducks are going to return to the national championship, it’s going to start and end with Brenner.

“She’s got to pass, play defense and lead – but the biggest key for her is to lead,” Moore said of Brenner. “At Hawaii, we won the first and then lost the next and we were going to lose that match, everybody was like you’re done. But Liz literally said ‘We’re not losing this match’ and that’s what we need. We need that Liz who’s going to stand up there and go ‘You’re going with me whether I have to ask you or kill you to go there.’”

For Brenner and the Ducks, the ability to play host for the first two rounds is a huge accomplishment. Not only do the Ducks get to avoid things such as airports, hotels and opposing fans, they get the huge advantage of being within their own elements and playing at an arena where they are 13-3 on the year.

“Playing at home is huge,” Brenner said. “Having our home fans – mentally that’s huge by getting to relax a bit, sleep in our bed; it’s definitely a huge advantage for us.”

Oklahoma and LSU will start off the Eugene-portion of the Regional with a 4:30 p.m. game on Thursday and be followed by the Ducks playing Santa Clara at 7 p.m. the same night. The winner of each match will then play on Friday at 4 p.m. with the right to advance to Minneapolis, Minnesota and the round of 16.

Here’s a breakdown of each team:

No. 10 Oregon (21-9, 11-9 in the Pac-12): The Ducks enter the tournament playing in what Moore calls the “the most difficult sub-region of any seed.” Offensively, the Ducks are led by Pac-12 first teamers Martenne Bettendorf and Brenner and setters Maggie Scott and Shellsy Ashen. Because of the Ducks’ depth offensively, they are able to run a 6-2 rotation and that has baffled their opponents all year long. Bettendorf leads the squad by averaging 3.67 kills per set while Brenner, freshman Frankie Shebby and senior Kacey Nady all average over 2.0 kills per set. Scott and Ashen combine to average 12.32 assists per set and have distributed the ball evenly to all hitters, including middle Serena Warner and outside hitters Taylor Agost and Naya Crittenden. Defensively, Amanda Benson is one of the best liberos in the country and leads the team with an average of 4.31 digs per set. Brenner and Chelsey Keoho combine to make a formidable backline where opponents have struggled to find the floor all year long.

“The focus has to be on the next play, it’s about the next play – and the next play is the first one against Santa Clara,” Moore said. “You have to be focused on the process and we have to enjoy the process.”

Santa Clara (22-9, 12-6 in WCC): Santa Clara enters the tournament after finishing third in the West Coast Conference. The Broncos are one of the better offensive teams in the nation by posting a .262 team hitting percentage, good enough for 22nd in the nation and are led by Nikki Hess and her 3.72 kills per set. They also are one of the best serving teams in the country, ranking third with an average of 1.83 aces per set. If Santa Clara struggles anywhere, it’s on the defensive side of the ball as it allows a .232 hit average from its’ opponents.

“Santa Clara has 1.83 aces per set,” Moore said. “That’s a lot more than Washington has and Washington is the toughest serving team, at least I thought there was, in the country.”

LSU (19-8, 14-4 in SEC): Sophomore Briana Holman is one of the best middle blockers in the nation and she is the key to LSU’s offense. Holman leads the team with an average of 3.90 kills per set and it’s her overall play that allows four other Tigers to average 1.90 kills per set. Holman doesn’t affect the game with her offensive skills; she does so with her defense by averaging 1.48 blocks per set while Haley Smith is the defensive specialist, averaging 4.35 digs per set. On the year, LSU is 1-4 against the top-25.

“LSU is very good – solid,” Moore said. “There’s a middle for them that went to China with us as a part of that USA team and she’s really good – first hand I know she’s really good.”

Oklahoma (20-10, 10-6 in Big-12): The second place team in the Big-12 might be the most dangerous threat against keeping Oregon from advancing. The Sooners seem to play their best when their opposition is very talented, as evident when Oklahoma swept No. 2 Texas earlier in the year before following in five sets four weeks ago to the Longhorns. Outside hitters Kierra Holst and Madison Ward lead the Sooners offense by each averaging over three kills per set while the offense as a whole hits at a .264 hitting percentage. Although the Sooners aren’t a very good blocking team, they do have three players averaging over two digs per set, proving that opponents have a tough time finding the floor.

“Oklahoma beat Texas,” Moore said. “That’s all you need to know about that.”

Follow Ryan Kostecka on Twitter @Ryan_Kostecka

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