Rams make early exit from NCAA tournament, lose 3-1 to Loyola Marymount

Emmett McCarthy

It was not meant to be for the Rams. Uncharacteristic errors, miscommunications and poor handling doomed them in the first round of the NCAA tournament as Colorado State fell to Loyola Marymount in four sets (25-20, 16-25, 25-19, 25-15). The loss ends the Rams’ season with a record of 26-4.

“They served the ball extremely tough and their attack velocity was really good,” CSU head coach Tom Hilbert said. “They hit the ball really hard. That put us back on our heels a bit in the service game and defensively. Offensively, we were good enough to win this game, but that’s not the whole game.”

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CSU appeared to be caught off guard by the LMU’s athleticism. Despite not matching up with the Rams in terms of size, the Lions were able to win battles at the night all game. Their middle-middle defense also frustrated the Rams. CSU had a .237 hitting percentage overall though it was inflated by an efficient second set. In the other three, they hit below .200, and hit at just a .069 percent clip in a pivotal third set.

Alex Reid had a solid performance in the final game of her collegiate career, posting a team-high 15 kills on .464 hitting in addition to eight digs. Alex Poletto also had a solid night, notching 12 kills (.429 hitting percentage) and six blocks. However, Adrianna Culbert, the Mountain West Player of the Year, was kept relatively quiet. She had 20 assists but was limited to just three kills on a negative hitting percentage (-.071).

The Lions put the pressure on early with a 6-0 run to go up 10-5, forcing CSU head coach Tom Hilbert to call a timeout. The Rams battled back but just when they thought they were catching up, LMU’s Sarah Sponcil took over to put the set away.

Sponcil finished with nine kills and nine digs for the Lions. Amber Mirabello and Jamie Lea led the LMU with 12 kills each.

“Because of the way that we scheme our blocking, a player that you don’t expect will have a great match,” Hilbert said of Mirabello. “She was impressive, but so was (Rachelle) Suaava. They were both good on the slide. It was probably a step quicker than we prepared for. I wish I had spent a little more time really looking into what this team was like. … We were preparing for the right offensive options, but we weren’t preparing for the right velocity and speed. If I could do it over again, I would have worked on that a little bit more.”

CSU refocused in the second and the teams traded points early on. The Rams never trailed, but couldn’t establish much breathing room either, until a 5-1 run featuring kills by Hanna, Reid, Andrews and Culbert put CSU up 17-12. The Lions took a timeout but it wasn’t enough to halt the momentum as the Rams’ outside hitters and middles continued to get the better of the Lions’ frontline. CSU evened things up at 1-1 heading into the intermission.

With the match tied up at 17-17 in an important third set, the Lions went on a 5-0 run. LMU took the set 25-19 to go up 2-1 after a kill by Suaava, who really found her rhythm in the second and third sets.

A comeback was not in the card. LMU continued to frustrate the Rams who just couldn’t seem to get a bounce. CSU had a height advantage at the net but the Lions proved to be more athletic than expected.

The Rams struggled in the service game. They hurt themselves with untimely errors and allowed an ace by Avery Bush on a crucial point late in the third set. Culbert alone had five service errors, and the team finished with 10 in total. CSU did not have a single service ace, while the Lions managed to hit seven against the Rams.

“I’d be okay with seven errors in a three-set match if we were hitting some aces and causing more problems, but we weren’t doing that,” Hilbert said.

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CSU finishes the season 26-4 overall and will go down as just the second team in Mountain West history to go undefeated in conference, but the early exit is a rough way to end the season. LMU will advance to face the winner of Stanford vs. New Mexico State in the second round.

Hilbert took some blame for the loss, and pointed out how proud he still is of what the team was able to do in the regular season. The Rams came into the tournament riding a 20-game win streak.

“You’ve got to look at the whole body of work and how much they have improved this year, what we did in our conference, and when we were on our A-game we played some great matches this year,” Hilbert said. “I’m proud to be their coach.”

Collegian Sports Editor Emmett McCarthy can be reached by email at sports@collegian.com and on Twitter @emccarthy22.