For those who didn’t know, it would have been hard to tell whether Thursday’s first-round NCAA tournament match between CSU and the sixth-seeded Washington Huskies was being played in Moby Arena or Coors Events Center in Boulder.
It also would have been tough to tell which team was the defending national champion and which team was the underdog.
CSU battled hard in front of a heavily partisan Ram crowd, but was unable to top the Huskies, falling 26-30, 30-26, 30-24, 30-22.
Head coach Tom Hilbert said his team played well but couldn’t muster the all-around game to pull off the upset.
“We didn’t have poise through the duration of games,” he said. “We played them well but we didn’t have the poise against a team of that quality, gave up too many point runs and that was the difference.”
The Rams were led by sophomore outside hitter Jaime Strauss who finished with 22 kills and 18 digs. CSU out-dug the Huskies 80-77 on the night.
“I thought our defense was really good,” Strauss said. “I thought our defense stuck with theirs or was even a little better than theirs tonight.”
Washington head coach Jim McLaughlin agreed with Strauss’ assessment, saying that this year’s CSU squad was far better defensively than a team the Huskies swept last year in the NCAA second round.
“No one out-digs us and they did,” he said. “This match was the one I was most worried about, even more than (top-seed) Nebraska. It’s tough to come here and play them. This was the best CSU team we’ve played so far.”
CSU kept the score tight throughout the first half of the starting game. Neither team led by more than one point until the Rams took an 8-6 lead on a block.
The Rams never trailed after that point, riding momentum to a 29-23 lead. Washington wouldn’t go down without a fight, taking the next three points to make it 29-26. But the Rams finished off the champs on a kill from sophomore middle blocker Mekana Barnes to win the opening game 30-26.
Junior Stevie Mussie posted 8 kills for the Huskies and Barnes led the Rams with six kills on .600 hitting in the opening game.
Washington, however, responded quickly with a 7-0 start to the next game. CSU, down 16-6 later in the game, made a seven point run, clearly stealing back the momentum.
The Huskies showed why they were ranked third in the country, pulling away late for a 30-26 win of their own thanks to nine kills from junior Pac-10 player of the year Christal Morrison.
Game three looked like more of the same early, as Washington jumped out to a 6-3 lead. But the Rams stayed alive and tied the game at 20.
At 24-22, the Rams appeared to win the point to make it a one-point contest, but the official overturned the original call and called a net violation on CSU, giving Washington a 25-22 lead.
From that point on, Washington benefited from several CSU mistakes and Mussie kills in a 30-24 win.
With their season on the line, CSU fought back from an early 5-1 deficit in game four to tie the score at nine points on a kill from Whitney. The teams traded points until the Rams took an 11-10 lead and clearly captured the momentum.
The Huskies evened the score at 17 on a kill from Mussie, took the lead on the following point, and never trailed again. Washington had 21 blocks in the 30-22 game five win.
“We did panic a little bit,” Barnes said of Washington’s control late in the match. “It showed because they ran points on us. We also gave them too many errors in key situations.”
CSU finishes the season at 20-10 overall, which is the 12th consecutive 20-win season for the Rams.
Hilbert was proud of his team’s close to the season, and said he looks forward to next year. The Rams will lose senior outside hitter Katherine Whitney as well as defensive specialist Lindsey Hillegass.
“I think we showed tonight that we certainly deserve to be in the NCAA tournament,” he said. “We’ve got a good group of kids and a nice base for the future. Katherine Whitney is one of the best smaller players in the United States.
“What we need to take from this is that we played Washington to 20-20. We’ve got to learn to play Washington or a team of that caliber to 30-30.”
Volleyball beat writer Jeff Dillon can be reached at email@example.com.