Mizzou volleyball wants to return to Sweet 16, but the team has to go through No. 9 Ohio State first

Eric Blum
Columbia Daily Tribune
Missouri volleyball players celebrate during a match against South Dakota in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Wednesday at CHI Health Center Omaha in Omaha, Neb.

Missouri volleyball never overlooked its first-round NCAA Tournament foe South Dakota, but there was always a larger plan in motion.

The Tigers took down the Coyotes in straight sets during their Wednesday matinee, winning 25-21, 25-17, 25-15 at the CHI Health Center in Omaha, Nebraska.

Consider it the next step en route to bigger goals for coach Joshua Taylor and Co.

Missouri has won at least one match in the NCAA Tournament for six consecutive seasons and has a chance to reach the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2017 on Thursday.

To get there, the Tigers must overcome No. 9 Ohio State. 

Preparations for Missouri's second-round match against the Buckeyes — scheduled for 11 a.m. Thursday on ESPN3 — started a few days ago for the coaching staff, so as to avoid a last-minute scramble.

Taylor trusted his team to get the job done against South Dakota. 

On Wednesday afternoon, after a quick lunch and recovery in the pool, the Tigers dove completely into the strategy of besting the Buckeyes.

"The NCAA Tournament is its own beast," Taylor said. "It's really hard to get here. Being here is a privilege and I think with that comes a lot of pressure. What we were talking about prior to the match is this pressure that we're feeling is a privilege. Being here is a privilege that comes with its own pressure, and I think being able to get those jitters out that come with it is something that I'm really grateful for.

"Ohio State hasn't played in weeks and they don't get to come play a match in this venue. ... Playing a match in this venue is much different than training. We know that. We've done that two days in a row.

"And I think a big thing also that we're trying to keep in mind is that they're starting three freshmen who have never been in the tournament before."

Missouri's Andrea Fuentes sets the ball during a match against South Dakota in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Wednesday at CHI Health Center Omaha in Omaha, Neb.

Although it ended well, Missouri's first-round victory was a lot closer than it appeared. 

The Coyotes tied the score at 17 in the first set after MU stormed out to a 12-3 lead. South Dakota held firm against the Tigers in the second set with a tie at 15 as well.

Missouri eventually found its footing and didn't allow a comeback by a Coyotes team with a penchant for five-set thrillers. South Dakota took down then-No. 14 Creighton after losing the first two sets and did the same against Denver in the Summit League championship match to earn its NCAA Tournament berth. 

Missouri's ability to calm the storm showed signs of knocking off game rust.

"I thought we played OK, but it wasn't our best volleyball at all," Missouri outside hitter Kylie Deberg said. "And knowing that it was just OK, that we can play so much better than that against a better team, it gives us a lot of hope and a lot of confidence that we can play really well tomorrow."

All the while, Missouri is also maneuvering through the distractions that come with this year's unusual tournament setup. A total of 32 matches fill the docket Wednesday and Thursday in Omaha, including three other matches simultaneously occurring within proximity of the Tigers' opening-round matchup.

"At the beginning you're cognizant of that because you get in there, it's a weird setup," Missouri setter Andrea Fuentes said. "You have a tent for a locker room, you see other teams passing by, going to their courts. You see teams everywhere, really. Even in the hotel, we get in an elevator and it's a different team every time the elevator opens.

"But as soon as you start," she continued, "that first serve goes in and we block everything out and it's game time. I never really thought about it and I don't think that my teammates did, either."

How to watch Mizzou vs. Ohio State

Game: Mizzou vs. No. 9 Ohio State in the NCAA volleyball tournament in Omaha, Nebraska

What time: Thursday, April 15, 11 a.m. CST

What channel: ESPN3

Contact Eric Blum at eblum@columbiatribune.com. Follow @ByEricBlum on Twitter.

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