Slow Start Hurts In Sweet Sixteen

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OMAHA, Neb. — An early deficit proved too much to overcome for the Oregon volleyball team Sunday as the No. 10 Ducks dropped a Sweet Sixteen matchup in the NCAA Tournament to No. 7 Purdue in four sets.

The Ducks dropped the first two sets before finding their rhythm and winning the third. They led the fourth set by as much as four at 15-11, and as late as 21-20, but the Boilermakers rallied to advance to the Elite Eight. Purdue won by scores of 25-17, 25-16, 22-25, 26-24.

“We were just really frazzled to start,” said UO junior Gloria Mutiri, who had 12 kills in the match. “There was a lot of energy. We all knew what was at stake, and what we had to lose. Starting out, I think everyone was overwhelmed.”

Oregon finished the season with a 15-5 record, having finished second in the Pac-12 Conference after challenging for the league title all the way until the final weekend of the regular season. The Ducks claimed a top-10 NCAA Tournament seed for the third time ever, but fell short of their third-ever Elite Eight appearance.

“We were overexcited,” UO coach Matt Ulmer said. “When you want it that bad, you almost can’t move. You have to be loose to have movement; we just got tight. I was hoping we could handle that better. I think that’s a very valuable learning moment for us. So when we get back here again — which we will in the fall — we’ll handle it differently.”

How It Happened: The Ducks were quickly in a hole to start the match, falling behind 5-1 and later 9-2. Purdue led 17-8 when Oregon started to find its footing, rallying within 18-14 with a rotation that had Abby Hansen and Mutiri on the floor. But that was the only sustained run the Ducks mounted, as Purdue was able to side out at a rate of 77.8 percent in the set, and hit .317.

Oregon began to show signs of settling in early in set two. Kills by Taylor Borup and Morgan Lewis gave the Ducks an early 4-3 lead, their first of the match, and two errors by Purdue made it 6-4 for Oregon. But then Purdue’s vaunted block began to frustrate the Ducks, who repeatedly looked to star Brooke Nuneviller to penetrate it — which only seemed to help the Boilermakers set their block more effectively. They rallied from down 6-4 to up 17-8. Mutiri helped the Ducks get back within 19-12 with two kills and a block in tandem with Karson Bacon, but yet another Purdue block ended the set.

At that point Purdue was siding out at 73.5 percent, and had hit .458 in the second set. Bacon and Lewis were the catalysts early on for Oregon in set three as the two teams traded points, and Lewis had two kills later in the set for ties at 15-15 and 16-16. Mutiri found the floor to put the Ducks in the lead for good, at 18-17, and Bacon finished off the set as the Ducks hit .250 and held Purdue to .156 hitting.

“Then, it was a match,” Ulmer said. “We showed up. If we could have done that the whole time, it would have been a real classic.”

Oregon maintained momentum for much of set four. Though Purdue had an early 4-2 lead, Oregon answered with four straight points on an ace by Elise Ferreira, kills by Bacon and Lewis and then a block by the duo of Bacon and Lewis. The Ducks went on another run later with their other setter on serve, as Kylie Robinson helped Oregon out to a 12-8 lead.

Purdue finally fought back into a tie at 19-19, before a kill by Mutiri and a Purdue error had the Ducks up 21-19 and threatening to force a fifth set. After the Boilermakers rallied to lead 24-22, Oregon fought off match point twice to tie it up again. Just when it looked liked Bacon had found the floor to end an extended rally and set up set point for the Ducks, an error was instead called on Oregon, and Purdue ended the match on the next point.

“Those are big-time moments we can learn from,” Mutiri said. “That’s the first time I’ve played in a game with that kind of reward on the line — being in the Elite Eight — so with that experience, we can do a lot. Just going into the fall, we know what this loss feels like, what pressure feels like, and we’ll be able to respond better.”

Who Stood Out: Lewis had 13 kills and Mutiri added 12, with Mutiri hitting .300 for the match. Bacon had eight kills and a team-high six blocks, and Nuneviller added eight kills with 22 digs, though Purdue’s defensive focus led to her hitting minus-.062. Ferreira had 20 assists with 10 digs, and Robinson finished with 22 assists and eight digs.

Notable: Oregon’s Sweet Sixteen run was the seventh in program history … Nuneviller finished the two tournament matches with 43 digs (6.14 per set) after adding 22 on Sunday … She ended the season averaging 4.04 digs per set … The Ducks’ 70 digs were the ninth-most in UO postseason history.

Up Next: After playing this season in the spring due to the pandemic, volleyball is scheduled to return to its normal season in the fall later this year.


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