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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's first round opponent in the 2021 NCAA Women's Volleyball Tournament is a team they're more than familiar with this season; and no team other than their opponent has already shown what it means to survive and advance.
Ranked as the seventh of eight possible seeds entering the WAC Tournament with a 8-6 conference record, Utah Valley was not expected to advance out of the first round and be where in the NCAA Tournament.
After a five-set win over New Mexico State, the Wolverines went on to sweep Stephen F. Austin in the semifinals and Grand Canyon in the championship match to earn its second-straight automatic bid into the tournament, which set up a first round matchup against the Utes, who they already played twice this season.
The two games between Utah and Utah Valley were early in the season — the first set of games for both teams. A third meeting this late in the season could be a completely different game and present new and unfamiliar challenges as both teams have improved and grown over the last three months.
Utah traveled to Utah Valley in August and won their first game of the season in four sets.
In a day's turnaround, the Utes hosted the Wolverines at the Huntsman Center. They may not have been pleased with their performance in Orem — or maybe they were more familiar with the court at the Huntsman Center — but the Utes completely dominated the second matchup and won it straight sets.
The Utes held Utah Valley to .022 hitting, and posted their highest hitting percentage of the season of .479.
The 2020 volleyball season, which was actually played in the spring of 2021, was unusual, to say the least due to adjustments that were made because of COVID-19.
The Utes did not have any preseason games, and instead played an untraditional conference schedule in home-home or away-away contests against the same team in the same weekend.
Utah received the No. 14 seed in the NCAA Tournament after finishing third in the Pac-12 with a 13-4 record and after having four games cancelled. The NCAA went away from its customary 64-team bracket by only inviting 48 teams in the 2020 tournament — 32 teams played a first round game while the top 16 seeds automatically advanced into the second round.
Pittsburgh found their flow in the first round when they defeated Long Island in three sets, and the momentum carried over into the next round in their matchup against the Utes.
Despite Dani Drews' 20 kills in the match, Utah had 16 errors to Pitt's eight and they were swept in their first game of the tournament, leaving the Utes with a bitter taste in their mouth with how their successful season ended.
If Utah wins and advances to the second round, they will play either the Mountain West champions Boise State or BYU, who received the No. 11 seed and is the host of the regional. Assuming BYU, a team riding a 21-match winning streak, makes it out of the first round, a classic rivalry match would be set between the Utes and the Cougars.
The teams played this year in the preseason on Sept. 16 in Provo at Smith Fieldhouse, where the Utes played from behind the entire match and were held to .163 hitting and a .282 assist percentage — the lowest percentages of the entire season — as they were defeated in straight sets.
The Utes have now made six consecutive postseason appearances in the national tournament, and this will be the fourth time during that stretch that they have been assigned to the Provo Regional where they have met BYU in the postseason twice.
The teams met for the first time in the NCAA Tournament in 2018 when BYU earned the No. 4 seed and advanced to the national semifinals. Utah entered the second round match winning six of their last seven games, but they struggled to get stops and were swept by BYU.
The following year in 2019, the two teams met again in the second round, and the Utes punched a ticket to the Sweet 16 for the fourth time in program history by sweeping the Cougars in dominant fashion in Provo; that was the first time BYU was swept on their home court since 2011.
Utah will travel to the Smith Fieldhouse in Provo on Friday for their match against Utah Valley at 4:00 p.m. MT. The winner will play the following day at 7:00 p.m. MT in Provo. Games are available to be streamed live on ESPN+.