Missouri displays mental toughness in 3-0 win against South Dakota

The Tigers succeeded in pulling away in tight-set situations and regrouped when errors were made.

Missouri volleyball senior outside hitter Kylie DeBerg adjusted her approach as the ball fell between her and sophomore middle blocker Kenna Sauer. Her feet moved diagonally toward the center of the court, paving the path to a sharp-cross kill that landed on the South Dakota line.

Tied at 15 with the Coyotes in the second set, sophomore outside hitter Anna Dixon responded once again with a deep corner kill.

Stellar performances from the offensive duo aided a 12-3 Missouri rally, which led to a 25-17 second set win and first-round sweep against South Dakota in the NCAA tournament.

It’s the Tiger’s third first-round win and seventh appearance at the dance. This season, however, proved more difficult to get to Omaha, Nebraska, than in past years.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced the NCAA to release a bracket with 16 fewer spots than usual. However, thanks to its 16-7 record in the SEC, Missouri received one of the tournament's final invites to one of the biggest volleyball stages in the world.

The Tigers stormed out to a 10-2 lead in the first set, but errors on their own side allowed for the Coyotes to crawl back and tie the score at 17.

Back-to-back errors committed by senior right-side hitter Dariana Hollingsworth and DeBerg. This tested Missouri’s ability to make a mistake without it influencing the next play. The Tigers overcame the mental battle and went on a 5-0 rally to claim the first set win.

“We executed our game plan really well today,” DeBerg said. “When we made mistakes, we let them go and moved on.”

Throughout the match, the senior was just as accurate in front of the ten-foot line and behind it. Having DeBerg attack from the back row allowed the Tigers to score in other ways. It also earned her the top .481% hitting percentage in the match, a considerably high record to achieve within three sets.

Dixon also played a large role in the Tigers’ sweep with 11 kills in the match. The sophomore constantly found the open areas where she could score. Her carefully crafted maneuvers extended Missouri’s rally to defeat South Dakota 25-15 in the third and final set.

What could be said from Missouri’s successes in the front row came in large part due to the performance of the Tigers’ playmaker, junior redshirt setter Andrea Fuentes.

The Puerto Rican helped Missouri hitters navigate around South Dakota’s wall of blockers with well-distributed sets. Fuentes finished the game with 39 assists.

“We have a tent for our locker room, you see teams everywhere you go,” Fuentes said. “There’s people announcing your name and announcing another [court], but we blocked everything out when it was time for first serve.”

The Tiger’s overall performance satisfied coach Joshua Taylor, who knew his team had the ability to pull away in tight sets and extend runs.

“I was happy with how we consistently got better,” Taylor said. “Toward the end of the match, we saw a little more consistency with addressing [mistakes] early on and finding a solution to the problem we were facing.”

While Missouri could move past its own mistakes Wednesday afternoon, its next opponent, Ohio State, won’t be as forgiving.

With a game already under their belt, the Tigers’ pressure of performing well in this tournament remains at an all-time high, but Taylor sees it as an asset to his team.

“Being able to get our jitters out [in a first game] is something I’m really grateful for,” Taylor said. “[Ohio State] can train for our match, but training is a lot different from playing in this venue.”

Missouri will face No. 9 Ohio State at 11 a.m. Thursday morning and it will be aired on ESPN3.

Edited by Kyle Pinnell | kpinnell@themaneater.com

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