Make it three straight championship appearances for the No. 2 seed University of Northern Colorado volleyball team.
UNC (23-6, 13-3 Big Sky) defeated No. 3 Portland State (19-9, 11-4 Big Sky) to clinch their spot in the Big Sky Conference Tournament final thanks to veteran composure. This avenged Northern Colorado’s 3-1 regular season loss to PSU earlier in the fall.
Portland State got out to a great start in the match, taking the first set after the Bears allowed themselves to get down, but the Vikings couldn’t overtake the experienced Northern Colorado team and fell in the subsequent sets (23-25, 25-18, 25-12, 25-21).
Junior Makenzie Harris, from Eaton, led the Bears with 16 kills on the night. She was followed by senior Kailey Jo Ince and junior Rachel Hickman who tallied 12 and 11, respectively.
Sophomore Lauren Strain, from Thornton, nearly had a double-double with 10 kills and nine total blocks, contributing on all but one of UNC’s 10. She also led the Bears with a whopping .500 hitting percentage.
“I thought we had a few nerves just in those first four to five points, and we played from behind three points that entire first set,” UNC coach Lyndsey Oates said. “They made a run, then we made a run and it was just a little bit too late.”
Northern Colorado didn’t look like its normal self early, most notably only recording seven digs. Oates said, however, the team was able to get Hickman going and senior libero Laura Katarzynski made huge plays to swing momentum back in its favor, despite not winning the first frame.
In fact, Katarzynski recorded three straight aces early in set two to give UNC the lead after being down two points.
Set three featured a balanced attack from the Bears, which hit well and put on a defensive clinic. UNC logged 11 kills on .296 hitting and three blocks. They held the Vikings to just six kills and a -.103 hitting percentage.
Portland State regained its composure after losing the previous set by 13 and forced Northern Colorado to work for its spot in the title round, but it wasn’t enough.
The Bears recorded several kills, including ones from Ince and Harris, simply off effort. PSU’s defense was often in position, but UNC found a way to power through the opposition.
Ince sealed the game for the Bears after a come-from-behind effort by the Vikings, though Oates trusted her entire front line to get things done.
“We remind our hitters that nothing counts for more than one point,” the 17-year coach said. “You don’t have to blast it, but I thought KJ went for a five point play (at 23-19) and she got blocked there; just go off the edges of the block. That’s how we had been scoring. We didn’t need a heroic play. We just needed one point.”
UNC will play in its eighth Big Sky title game under Oates at 7 p.m. Saturday. Out of the seven previous appearances, the Bears have won five titles.
Northern Colorado will play against No. 1 Weber State, who defeated No. 4 Montana State in five sets. The game will be televised on ESPN+.
This content was originally published here.