Provo • New Mexico State came into Smith Fieldhouse on Friday as the winner of 19 straight matches, which led the Aggies to a WAC title this season. But all through that streak, they probably never saw a team like BYU.
The 14th-seeded Cougars made relatively quick work of the Aggies, sweeping the visitors 3-0 (25-7, 25-23, 25-19) in their NCAA Tournament opener.
“We had to battle those last two sets, and I’m just proud of the way we fought through those last two sets,” BYU coach Heather Olmstead said. “I’m happy for our team and proud of the way we battled and excited to be advancing.”
The Cougars move on to face arch-rival Utah on Saturday at 7 p.m., in the second round. The Utes beat Illinois in five sets (25-23, 24-26, 25-27, 25-23, 15-10) earlier Friday to advance.
BYU closed out the first set on a 17-2 run, in which Whitney Bower nailed 16 consecutive serves.
BYU 3, NEW MEXICO STATE 0
• BYU snaps New Mexico State’s 19-game winning streak in 3-0 first round match in Smith Fieldhouse
• The Cougars rally behind McKenna Miller’s defense to come from behind in the third set and get the sweep
• BYU advances to the second round, where the Cougars will face in-state rival Utah
Olmstead said Bower has been working on her serves — an instrumental part of the Cougars’ run — but also believed the Aggies might have fallen prey to tournament jitters.
“That’s not their team at all. And I know that — I’ve watched a bunch of film on them,” Olmstead said. “We just tried to stay as neutral as we could about that first set, like ‘let’s just move forward.’ And they came out way stronger in the second set and caused some problems for us.”
Another part in the Cougars’ success in the first set came from being able to pressure the net early. Junior Kennedy Eschenberg was a strong force there, with a team-high 6 blocks.
“I think we did do a lot of things well in that first set,” Olmstead said. “Defensively, obviously behind Whitney’s serve, Kennedy dropped in on a couple balls. And I think it rattled them a little bit and that was good for us.”
The Aggies’ best chance to claim a set came in the third set, when they led halfway through, but the Cougars rallied behind McKenna Miller’s attack to take the lead and not look back.
Miller also made a pancake play, which was a defensive spark for the team.
“It’s a game changer, and that pancake was huge,” senior Mary Lake said. “It was a ball that she wasn’t supposed to get up and I was just so proud and excited for our team.”
While Miller led the attack with 13 kills, freshman outside hitter Kate Grimmer followed with 10 kills.
Olmstead said she provides a bit of a different look on the right side, forcing opponents to defend her left hand, and also provides a great energy for the team.
And she also has the ability to go back and serve when needed.
“Really proud of how hard she’s working and I thought she played a great match tonight,” Olmstead.