WACO, Texas — Two and a half sets into Thursday’s match at the Ferrell Center, the Colorado volleyball team was playing right with 20th-ranked Rice.
In the middle of the third set, however, Rice seized the momentum and CU never fully recovered.
The Buffaloes’ season came to a close with a 3-1 loss (26-24, 24-26, 25-16, 25-14) in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
“Obviously, today was a tough one,” CU senior Meegan Hart said. “There was a lot of excitement, a little bit of nerves coming into it. The first two sets were competitive, but from there, shout out to Rice. They’re a great team. They played really well defensively and we just, kind of speed-wise couldn’t catch up. It’s definitely frustrating because we could have played a lot better than that.”
After the two teams split a competitive first two sets, the Buffs (20-11) led 15-14 in the third set. The Owls’ Sahara Maruska was then credited with a kill to tie the set at 15-15, but CU head coach Jesse Mahoney challenged the play, arguing the ball landed out of bounds. The call was upheld, though and Rice (27-3) kept the point. That started a 10-0 run for the Owls.
Mahoney didn’t blame that call, however, for CU’s struggle.
“I think Rice made their own fortune, to be honest,” he said. “We got stuck in what we call ‘rotation five.’ Any one play there I think gets us out of it and we go on to play well in that set.”
CU didn’t get that play, though.
“We gave them six or seven points (in the third set) and our passing broke down a little bit,” Mahoney said. “We had a couple really nice swings that I think usually end up as points that they made some great defensive plays on. Then, we lost our composure a little bit and started to press a little bit. I kind of felt like we righted the ship in set four, but again our passing broke down a little bit.”
In the fourth set, CU played well early, tying the score at 7-7. Rice then scored six straight and 10 of 11 points to go up 17-8 and cruise from there.
For Hart and several other seniors, it was a disappointing finish to a great season that culminated in CU’s first trip to the NCAA Tournament since 2018.
“It’s great to end (in the tournament), but I know we could have gone farther and it’s frustrating,” Hart said. “In coming years, the team now knows what it takes to get to the tournament, how to win and just grind all season long and all offseason.
“Looking back at my past years here, it’s emotional. I haven’t cried this much in a long time. … I just really love this team and we worked so hard this season, so I’m just proud of us.”
Mahoney was proud, too.
This is CU’s 12th season in the Pac-12 and the Buffs matched their best finish (fifth) and best record (12-8) in conference play since joining the league. They also reached the 20-win mark for the first time since 2017.
“I couldn’t be more proud of this group of kids,” he said. “Regardless of the result, one match doesn’t define you at all. It’s the body of work and I’m just happy that we’ve had a couple tough seasons and they kept grinding and really had one of the best seasons CU’s had in Pac-12 history. They’ve got a lot to be proud of.”
No. 20 Rice 3, Colorado 1
Colorado 24 26 16 14
Rice 26 24 25 25
Kills – Colorado (45): Hadrych 20, Tabron 9, Hart 6. Rice (65): Maruska 22, Bichelmeyer 17, Courtley 12.
Assists – Colorado (42): Simpson 30, DeLuzio 8. Rice (60): Graham 49, McCardell 5.
Aces – Colorado (3): Schneggenburger 1, Perry 1, Simpson 1. Rice (3): Maruska 1, Rawlings 1, Harris 1.
Blocks – Colorado (17): Kuehl 5, Hadrych 3, Hart 3. Rice (5): Kostelecky 2, Adekunle 2.
Digs – Colorado (77): Tabron 17, Schneggenburger 16, Lougeay 16. Rice (95): Harris 22, McCardell 21, Graham 17.