Washington (19-12, 10-10 Pac-12) vs #9 Creighton (29-4, 18-0 Big East): Sat, 5 PM Pacific (7 PM local in Omaha, Nebraska). Free live stream is available through Fox Sports Go.
It was pretty for a while, then it suddenly wasn't late in set 3 and most of set 4, but Washington defeated Saint Mary's in the opening round of the NCAA tournament on Friday afternoon in four sets (25-22, 25-17, 24-26, 25-22).
Saint Mary's in Review
- The serving was strong, recording 12 aces, which 2018 UW needs to be the case to have a shot at defeating top competition.
- The defense at the pins was stellar. Gaels' OH2 Sarah Chase had a poor night offensively, while OH1 Lindsey Knudsen was surprisingly a complete non-factor.
- The offense, when UW got to it, was very good. Kara Bajema (16 kills on .400 hitting), Claire Hoffman (13 on .346), Sam Drechsel (11 on .348), and Niece (7 on .545) were all effective, with only Lauren Sanders not providing an offensive lift of the 5 attackers. If 4 out of a team's 5 hitters have above average or better nights, it's normally a pretty easy win.
- Serve-receive was absolutely terrible. SMC matched the Huskies with 12 aces, but that doesn't tell the full story. Ella May Powell was running around like a chicken with her head cut off to get second contacts. The fact that UW somehow hit .360 given how much they were out of system is remarkably impressive, but also incredibly dangerous to rely on. Bajema, in particular, had a very poor game in receive, making a few bad passes early and was subsequently targeted as frequently as possible as the match went on. The big size advantage that the Huskies had over SMC doesn't exist tomorrow: if serve-receive is even close to that bad vs Creighton, UW will get carved up.
- The defense against SMC's middles was not ideal, either, but that pales in comparison to the serve-receive problem. Keep an eye on Megan Ballenger, though, as noted below.
Creighton is a very good all-around team — they wouldn't be the 9-seed if they weren't — but their elite offense is what drives the success.
The Bluejays have two primary offensive weapons who can tear apart a defense: Big East Player of the Year OH1 #5 Jaali Winters and RS #12 Taryn Kloth, who would have gotten my vote (by a narrow margin). Kloth is very streaky, while Winters tends to be a more consistent source of offense. With that said, Kloth can absolutely take over a match single-handedly, as she did in their first game vs South Dakota: 16 kills and no errors on 23 attempts for an absurd .696 hitting percentage.
One thing to keep an eye on for the Bluejays: their two middle blockers are vastly different in style. #19 Megan Ballenger is much more of an offensive threat, especially running behind the setter and hitting on the right side (referred to as "the slide"). Her counterpart, #21 Naomi Hickman, is rarely used offensively, but has the superior blocking mumbers.
The focus, therefore, has to be on keeping Creighton stuck in rotations where just one of their top 3 offensive threats (Kloth, Winters, & Ballenger) is in the front row.
Because of how strong the Creighton offense is, I'd like to see UW be extremely aggressive on serve, even more so than usual. CU is good enough that if they get in system, they're most likely going to win the point anyway, so the Huskies should be willing to commit a few more service errors in exchange for constant service pressure.