Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer
Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer
NCAA volleyball tournament first round
MATCHUP: Colorado Buffaloes (18-13) vs. South Carolina Gamecocks (19-9)
GAME TIME: Friday, 3:30 p.m. MT, Maturi Pavilion, Minneapolis, Minn.
BROADCAST: Live stream available at gophersports.com.
NOTES: This is CU’s second consecutive NCAA appearance and the Buffs’ fourth in the past six seasons…The winner will play either Bryant or host Minnesota on Saturday at 6 p.m. MT…CU has won its first-round match in each of its past four NCAA Tournament appearances…The Buffs are 5-2 in their past seven road games…This is CU’s 20th appearance in the national tournament and the fourth time the Buffs have been sent to Minneapolis. CU’s first-ever NCAA tourney game was in Minneapolis in 1989…Buffs coach Jesse Mahoney will make his fourth NCAA Tournament in seven seasons as the head coach at CU and Denver…The Buffs are one of eight Pac-12 programs that reached the 64-team NCAA field…South Carolina finished fifth in the SEC.
Naghede Abu didn’t want to think about.
Going into her senior season with the Colorado volleyball team, the standout middle blocker was well on her way to setting the Buffaloes’ career blocks record. A season comparable to the average of her first three with the Buffs easily would have done the trick.
That trajectory was altered, yet hardly derailed, by an injury that kept Abu sidelined for the first eight games of the season. Her absence coincided with an uneven start for the Buffs, and it’s likely not a coincidence that CU started playing its best volleyball of the season once Abu rounded into form.
For the second consecutive season, Abu and fellow senior Alexa Smith have led the Buffaloes into the NCAA Tournament. Now the Buffs’ all-time leader in blocks, Abu and Smith will look to lead a repeat run into the Sweet 16 that begins with a first-round match against South Carolina Friday afternoon at Minnesota.
“I can’t say (the record) was something that was something that I really wanted to do. For me, I think I was more focused on taking it one game at a time and easing myself back into it and doing the best I could to help my team,” Abu said. “If it ended up happening in the process, so be it. But it’s still pretty cool to be able to do something like that.
“Towards the end of the season, we were playing our best volleyball. I saw our team come together in a way I don’t think we have all season. That alone, for me, I was very proud of that.”
Abu began the season with 448 career blocks, well within reach of Meghan Barkman’s all-time CU record of 565. That goal grew exponentially more difficult when Abu missed the first eight matches, as did a gradual return to the lineup in which Abu averaged 1.14 blocks per set through her first nine matches.
As Abu has gotten stronger, however, so have the Buffs. In her past 14 matches Abu has averaged 1.45 blocks per set, and her late charge at Barkman’s record included a CU match-record 17 blocks in a five-set win at Oregon State on Nov. 18. Abu broke Barkman’s all-time in the following game, a key road win at UCLA.
Going into the NCAA Tournament, Abu owns 576 career blocks. She was named first-team All-Pac-12 earlier this week after earning honorable mention accolades a year ago. Smith, who ranks seventh all-time at CU with 1,313 kills despite playing her freshman season at Purdue, also landed on the All-Pac-12 first team for the second consecutive year.
The gaudy numbers and postseason accolades no doubt are rewarding. But perhaps more importantly, Abu and Smith have been the leading players on two consecutive Buffs teams that have played their best down the stretch, in both cases with their NCAA tourney hopes on the line.
“I think we really focus on in this program just gradually getting better. That’s something you always want going into the postseason,” Smith said. “Last year and this year we did decently well in the beginning, but then going into the postseason stretch we really had to crack down and continue to get better to get those wins. I think when you’re really conscious of that you make that extra effort, and that’s what has helped us the last two years.
“In the past few weeks we’ve played some really good volleyball. I think that will help us have some momentum into this weekend.”