Thriller ends in heartbreak for CU volleyball in NCAA Tournament

The Colorado volleyball team didn’t get sent home without a fight.

In a thrilling but ultimately heartbreaking battle in Minnesota, the Buffaloes fell short in a five-set marathon against South Carolina Friday in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

After a late push into the 64-tournament field that included a 6-4 mark in the second half of the Pac-12 Conference and a run of three consecutive league wins on the road, the Buffs’ season finishes at 18-14. It was the Buffs’ second consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance and the program’s fourth in six years. CU had won four consecutive first-round matches since, dating back to a 2005 opening-round loss against Colorado State.

“Frustrating way to end the year, felt like it was a match that could go either way,” CU head coach Jesse Mahoney said. “Two of those five sets hinged on a play here or there and we couldn’t get it done and South Carolina did. That’s what makes the sport so exciting. A five-set match in the NCAA Tournament is what we do this for.

“We wanted to do the right things and we competed at a high level, just didn’t quite work out at the end.” 

The back-and-forth tone was set early, as the Gamecocks outlasted the Buffs 34-32 in a wild opening set. CU had two chances to close out the set win, taking leads at 27-26 and 29-28, and the Buffs eventually held off seven separate South Carolina set points before falling short.

The Buffs bounced back to take set two and again held off defeat by pulling out set four 25-13. Set five was close throughout and was tied 12-12 before South Carolina was able to advance by claiming three of the final four points.

Anyse Smith, named to the Pac-12 all-freshman team earlier this week, paced the Buffs’ attack with 17 kills. Playing the final games of their respective decorated careers at CU, Alexa Smith finished with 16 kills and 13 digs while Naghede Abu recorded 12 kills and six blocks. Justine Spann posted 13 kills and freshman setter Jenna Ewert dished out 54 assists.

Abu, who broke CU’s all-time blocks record last week at UCLA, finished with a record total of 582. She also owns three of the top nine single-season block totals in program history and would have added a fourth season to that list if not for missing the season’s first eight games due to an injury.

With her 16 kills, Alexa Smith finishes her career in seventh place among CU’s all-time leaders with 1,329 — a mark made even more impressive due to the fact Smith played her freshman season at Purdue.

Pat Rooney: or

South Carolina 3, Colorado 2

At University of Minnesota

Colorado (18-14)               32 25 12 25 13

South Carolina (20-9)        34 19 25 13 15

Kills — Colorado: An. Smith 17, Al. Smith 16, Spann 13, Abu 12; South Carolina: Shields 19, Furlong 16.

Blocks — Colorado: Abu 6, Ewert 4; South Carolina: Edwards 5, Koehler 4.

Assists — Colorado: Ewert 54; South Carolina: Koehler 60.

Aces — Colorado: Neverdowski 3, Ewert 2, Whipple 2; South Carolina: Ezell 5, Shields 3.

Digs — Colorado: Whipple 22, Ewert 14, Al. Smith 13, Neverdowski 12; South Carolina: Ezell 18, Shields 15, Koehler 14.