A battle of the only undefeated teams left in Mountain West play ended with a five-set victory for No. 23 Colorado State Thursday night. CSU came all the way back from a two-set deficit to defeat the Boise State Broncos in dramatic fashion (21-25, 11-25, 25-23, 25-19, 17-15).
After looking dreadful in the first two sets, the Rams (15-2, 5-0 MW) turned everything around starting in the third frame when they hit at a .405 clip and registered three blocks.
The Rams offense did not have a leader as they once again relied on many attackers to lead the charge. Sophomore Kirstie Hillyer, senior Jasmine Hanna and redshirt freshman Breana Runnels all had nine kills after the third frame.
All the momentum from the third set carried over into the fourth after an early 6-6 tie turned into a 17-8 Rams lead following an 11-2 run. Sophomore Paulina Hougaard-Jensen inserted herself into the match in a big way with four of those 11 points coming off her kills.
A fifth and final set ensued and neither team gave in as seen by seven ties and four lead changes in the set alone. The Rams went up 14-12 on Runnels’ 16th kill of the match before dropping the next three points to give Boise State (11-6, 4-1 MW) a match point. Boise State’s Janell Walley hit a serve into the net, however, to bring the score back to a tie at 15 apiece.
On the next point, the Broncos set up reigning Mountain West Player of the Year Sierra Nobley looking for her 25th kill of the match. Instead, she was met at the net by Hillyer who sent her attack attempt to the floor to pick up her only solo block of the match and seventh block in total.
“(Hillyer) got a really incredibly important block at the very end of this match,” head coach Tom Hilbert said. “That probably made the difference.”
Sophomore setter Katie Oleksak grabbed her 57th assist of the match when Runnels put an end to the Broncos on the next point, giving the Rams a 17-15 set victory to seal the comeback effort.
“They were able to just relax and go out and play their game a little bit better, especially in the serve-receive area,” Hilbert said. “We made a switch where we rotated around Bre (Runnels) so that (she) had a bigger exposure and she played great in sets three, four, five.”
The win put an end to the 18-match conference win streak the Broncos amassed from last year into this season. The Rams now hold a 13-1 all-time record against the Broncos.
Though they struggled to block coming into the game, the Broncos showed no sign of weakness behind their 10 blocks through the first two sets. The Rams were out of sync for pretty much the whole first two sets as they struggled in the serve-receive game, something Hilbert believes led to the Rams getting denied at the net.
“That’s because of serve-receive, that was really the reason,” Hilbert said. “We were grossly out of system all the time, we were trying to force things out of habit. That’s why we hit all of those unforced hitting errors too so it all related to the fact that we were out of system.”
The Rams finished the match with 10 service errors, most of which came in the first two sets. In the final three sets, the errors went away and CSU finally got back into their system of attacks, Hilbert described.
Mystery surrounded Nobley as the Mountain West’s all-time leader in kills missed the Broncos’ first four conference matches for unknown reasons. She took the court and played how she normally does by grabbing 24 kills, 12 digs and four blocks. But CSU was able to hold back the rest of a strong Broncos offense by picking up 13 blocks and holding them to a .209 hitting percentage.
“I thought we played some good defense at times,” Hilbert said. “We stopped Nobley when we needed to…we took advantage of the blocking matchups that were in our favor, especially at the end and that really helped too.”
Runnels paced the Rams with 17 kills, and Hougaard-Jensen continues to be the most efficient hitter on the team with a .571 hitting mark. Hillyer led the way on defense with seven total blocks and sophomore Amanda Young dug out 20 kills.
“I was really happy, I’m happy for these kids,” Hilbert said. “It became a match where our team’s like, ‘We can win this thing’ and they did.”
The win puts the Rams alone atop of the Mountain West as the only 5-0 team in the conference as they finish up their four-game road trip on Saturday with a trip to take on the Utah State Aggies. The match is set to begin at 8 p.m.
Collegian sports reporter Austin White can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ajwrules44.