Nathan Keil | Sports Writer
Baylor volleyball saw its 2016 season come a close on Saturday, as the Bears fell in three sets to the UCLA Bruins in the second round of the NCAA tournament, 25-21, 25-20, 25-20.
“So proud of this team this year. The number of wins, the battles, the five set victories we’ve had. From Morgan [Reed]’s maturity to Jana [Brusek]’s consistency, just the growth we’ve had. It’s a special team for me, just because I’ve learned,” said head coach Ryan McGuyre. “They’ve inspired me and I’ve caught myself being discouraged at times, and when you see their resiliency and you see them getting back in the gym going hard, it makes me make sure we’re giving them our best as a staff. It was fun as a staff this year and it was tiring, but these girls are fun to be around.”
The loss saw senior setter Morgan Reed and defensive specialist Alex Bannister’s collegiate careers come to an end. Reed finished with 37 assists and 10 digs, while Bannister contributed two digs for the Bears.
The first two sets followed a similar pattern. UCLA started off fast in both sets, jumping out to early leads and forcing the Bears to play catch up. The Bruins built up an 18-12 lead in the first set before Baylor made its final push to close to within 18-17. In that push, the Bears began to find their offensive groove as redshirt junior outside hitter Katie Staiger, sophomore outside hitter Aniah Philo, and junior middle hitter Camyrn Freiberg all recorded kills.
After the Bears cut the Bruins lead to one, the Bruins finished the first set on a 7-3 run, ending the set on a kill by senior middle blocker Claire Felix.
The second set saw the Bruins go back and forth early on with the Bears before putting some distance between them at 18-11. Baylor would fight back and cut the lead to five, but could get no closer, as they fell 25-20 in the second.
The Bears did all they could in the third to try and extend the match and extend their season. The Bears came out swinging and built a 7-5 lead early on in the third. However, the Bruins would continue to chip away at the lead and after they tied the match at 17 apiece, the Bruins could see the finish line, as they score eight of the final 11 points to finish off Baylor, 25-20.
The Bears were led on the offensive end by Philo, who tied her career high with 16 kills. Staiger, who had been the backbone of the Bears’ offense all season long, was limited to 14 kills by the Bruins.
Baylor earned its match with UCLA with another thrilling five set in on Friday night against the University of San Diego. The win over the West Coast Conference champion Toreros notched Baylor’s first win in the tournament since 2009.
Baylor and San Diego traded sets back and forth threw the first four, but it was the Bears who would get the last laugh. After building a 13-9 lead in the fifth set, San Diego charged back and tied it at 13, but after two errors on the attack, Baylor secured the upset victory.
“On paper, it didn’t look like we should have won, but that’s what we’ve done all season,” Staiger said. “We’ve had this goal to play for each other and for an audience of one, to glorify God. That was evident in how that game turned out, going for it until the very end, a fight to the finish.
Staiger and Philo led the attack for Baylor, finishing with 20 and 14 kills respectively.
Baylor now heads into the offseason and will look to build on the success of this year’s team as they look towards 2017. Baylor will return 15 of its players from this year’s team, including sophomore middle hitter Shelly Fanning, senior middle hitter Tola Itiola and redshirt freshman middle hitter Jaelyn Jackson, all who missed this season with injuries.
With the experience of this year’s team and the adversity it faced, McGuyre said he is confident in his team’s ability to fight in tough matches and get back to the tournament.
“We learned something about ourselves this year as we learned to battle and fight. Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard,” McGuyre said. “We’ll know how to work hard, and we’re going to get some great talent.”
Baylor finished the season 22-12 overall, 9-7 in the Big 12 conference. UCLA advances to the sweet sixteen round of the NCAA tournament. The Bruins will take on the 7th seed North Carolina in Minnesota on 9:45 p.m. Friday.