Bounced from the Bubble: Missouri volleyball falls short against No. 9 Ohio State in second round of NCAA tourney

The longest season in Missouri volleyball history came to an end in a familiar place.

After a grueling eight months and 24 matches, the clock struck 12 on Missouri volleyball’s season.

For the third straight year, the Tigers faced elimination at the hands of a Big Ten team in the second round of the NCAA volleyball tournament. No. 9 Ohio State’s stalwart defense and precision attacking helped lift it to a hard-fought three-set sweep of Missouri.

In many ways, the match perfectly represented the Tigers’ season. But Missouri responded to setbacks by working as a team and consistently improving as the match progressed.

On Thursday, their refinements proved to be too little too late, but the Tigers still left the Omaha, Nebraska, bubble with no regrets.

“I wouldn’t have changed anything,” coach Joshua Taylor said. “We walked off knowing we gave it our all mentally and physically, but today wasn’t our day.”

Thanks to a first-round bye, the Buckeyes came into Thursday’s match with three weeks off. Ohio State’s time off provided more rest than rust, and the Buckeyes quickly jumped out to a 16-9 first-set lead.

Ohio State libero Kylie Murr quickly neutralized Missouri’s main offensive threats, senior outside hitter Kylie Deberg and sophomore outside hitter Anna Dixon. The two Tigers finished the day with .250 and .154 hitting percentages respectively.

On the front line, Ohio State senior middle blocker Lauren Witte and freshman opposite hitter Emily Londot outmatched Missouri’s hitters, tallying five blocks each in the match.

Still, the Tigers never trailed by more than nine points thanks to excellent coordination from their front line. Redshirt junior Andrea Fuentes tallied 26 assists, and despite her hitting percentage, Deberg still managed 17 kills.

Aided by Thursday’s performance, Fuentes ended her collegiate career with 3,088 assists, which made her the seventh player in school history to surpass 3,000 helpers.

More than any other match this season, Missouri felt the absence of senior middle blocker Tyanna Omazic — who was sidelined for the year after a torn ACL and PCL in an October match against Kentucky — as the Buckeyes put intense pressure on Missouri’s defense.

“Seeing one of our best players and best friends in that sort of pain, I think our team faced adversity really well and leaned on each other there,” Dixon said.

That theme held true in the tough moments of Thursday’s match.

Down 2-0 with its backs against the wall, Missouri refused to give up without a fight. After falling behind 13-8 in the third set, the Tigers found creative ways to narrow the margin, bringing the set within two points late in the set.

Inspired play by Londot closed the door on Missouri’s run, spelling the end of an eight-month uphill campaign.

Taylor did not mince words when discussing the toll the season has had on the program and its players.

“It hasn’t been fun,” Taylor said. “There’s been a lot of moments where people were trying to decide if they wanted to quit or not, and this group didn’t. This is only going to benefit them in the real world, so I’m proud of them.”

Despite Thursday’s disappointment, Dixon reflected on the lessons she’s learned from the senior Deberg.

“Coming into Mizzou, I couldn’t have asked for a better person to look up to,” Dixon said. “She’s such a humble and selfless player, and sometimes those players are hard to find.”

The Tigers return to Columbia for a much-deserved summer break. In August, they will begin preparations for the 2021 season, where the mantle will be handed to this years’ underclassmen.

After the match, freshman libero Emily Brown received a typical yet poignant piece of advice from the seniors in the locker room.

“Don’t cry because it’s over,” Brown said. “Cry because it happened.”

Edited by Kyle Pinnell | kpinnell@themaneater.com

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