Because it’s the NCAA tournament and ostensibly a neutral-site atmosphere, the Ferrell Center public address announcer doesn’t get as animated or excited as he normally would for a Baylor point.
His tone matched the Bears, who were all business.
Baylor’s nasty netminders racked up 11 blocks and the fourth-seeded Bears swept aside Stephen F. Austin, 25-13, 25-18, 25-15, to open up the postseason on Thursday night at the Ferrell Center. Baylor (24-6) moves on to face fifth-seeded Rice (27-3), a four-set winner over Colorado, in the NCAA’s second round at 7 pm Friday.
From the outset, BU’s blockers built a stockade at the net, and Stephen F. Austin (26-5) could not find a consistent path to the other side. Allie Sczech (7 blocks), Mallory Talbert (6) and Kara McGhee (4) showed top-notch technique in turning back the Lumberjack attacks.
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“Have you seen them?” … Tonight the size factor won out,” SFA coach Debbie Humphreys said. “We just didn’t have an answer for that.”
McGhee, playing in her fourth NCAA tournament, brought steady leadership from the jump. The senior from San Antonio smacked four kills in her first four swings and rejected an SFA attack for a block within the first few minutes, as Baylor snatched a 15-7 advantage by the first timeout of the opening set.
Whereas McGhee is a constant defensive force, Sczech is nipping at her heels as the heir apparent as Baylor’s next “Stifle Tower.” The freshman opposite-side hitter cut down SFA’s hitting lanes on the outside, deflating the Lumberjacks’ energy and altering their attacking strategy.
“I thought Allie Sczech just set the tone,” Baylor coach Ryan McGuyre said. “It’s hard not to get to them when hitters are looking one way and then the other way. I just told the team, not since Kara McGhee as a freshman have I had a freshman blocker as strong as she’s been for us all season. That, I thought, put us in control on the defense.”
Sczech, who this week was named to the Big 12’s All-Freshman Team, also contributed seven kills while hitting .400. But she still has a little to learn before she can fully clean up the competition — or at least clean up her dirty socks and T-shirts.
“She’s just naturally so good,” McGhee said of Sczech. “But we’re actually roommates, so we live together. So, that’s just been fun to get to know her on a deeper level as roommates. She definitely does silly freshman things. She can’t do her own laundry. So, I typically do her laundry for her, which is kind of funny. But she’s just fun. She’s a fun person.”
Baylor also made the Lumberjacks teeter from their defensive perch with their serve. The Bears dropped in five aces, including two apiece from Mallory Talbert and Lauren Briseno.
It’s also been a big week for the former walk-on Briseno, who learned on Sunday at the team’s NCAA tournament selection show watch party that she had earned a full scholarship.
“I was not expecting it whatsoever,” said Briseno, a sophomore libero from San Antonio. “I knew we were doing a white elephant (gift exchange) with the team and just kind of messing around. Lo and behold, I got this mystery box, and I had no idea what it entailed. I opened it up and, sure enough, it’s a scholarship. And I just burst out into tears. I truly was just left with so much joy. I’m so grateful to be here playing with this team, playing with these coaches.”
From an attacking standpoint, Baylor handled its business. Freshman Averi Carlson delivered 37 assists to go with 13 digs to finish with a double-double. Elise McGhee topped the attack with 13 kills while hitting .455, while Lauren Harrison contributed seven kills and hit .300. As a team the Bears hit .376 while limiting the Lumberjacks to a .097 hitting percentage.
Baylor’s next foe Rice will certainly be no stranger. The Owls and Bears met in a nonconference battle back on Oct. 12 in Houston, with the Bears landing an impressive road sweep.
However, that outcome doesn’t give Baylor any kind of leg up, McGuyre emphasized.
“Probably not a comfort level. If anything, it makes it more of a battle,” McGuyre said. “We know we had to play them really well to play them at their place. They don’t have very many losses on the season, and we’re one of them. So, we’re assuming, if we’re in their shoes, they really want to get back and re-write the script. So, we’ve got to make sure we’re just as prepared as we were the first time if not more.”
Rice 3, Colorado 1
To advance in the NCAA tournament, your defense better be up to snuff. Rice coach Genny Volpe gave her team’s defensive effort a hearty thumb’s up.
The fifth-seeded Owls limited Colorado to .114 hitting in pulling out the four-set victory, 26-24, 24-26, 25-16, 25-14, in their first-round matchup. Rice (27-3) advances to face Baylor in Friday’s second round.
“In general, our defense really anchored us the entire match,” Volpe said. “I thought Carly (Graham) did an excellent job in getting everyone involved and when we were struggling in one position, another position stepped up. So, that’s been our MO all season and we knew it would help us in this type of situation.”
Although the first two sets were anyone’s ball game, the Owls separated themselves in the final two frames. They scrambled and passed with precision, finishing with 95 digs to just 77 for the Buffaloes (20-11).
Darby Harris scooped up 22 digs for Rice, while Nia McCardell had 21. Sahara Maruska hammered a match-best 22 kills to lead the Owl attack.
For Colorado, Lexi Hadrych tagged 21 kills while hitting .405. She was one of eight Buffs playing her final college match, including setter/libero Brynna DeLuzio, who actually played at the Ferrell Center in 2017 when Colorado swept Baylor in the NCAA tourney.