Kearney, Neb. – The eighth-seeded Harding (Ark.) University Bison got 20 kills from senior lefty Emma Reeves and senior middle blocker Zoe Hardin came up big in the fifth set to upset third-ranked and top-seed Nebraska-Kearney in five sets (21-25, -22, -21, 15-25, -9) in an NCAA Tournament match Thursday night at the Health & Sports Center. HU, regular season and tournament champions of the Great American Conference, advance to Friday’s second round of the Central Regional where they’ll face fourth-seed and two-time defending national champion Concordia-St. Paul. The other side of the bracket finds second-seeded Minnesota-Duluth battling third-seeded Washburn. “We wanted to come in here tonight and show we can play and I think we did that,” said Harding head coach Meredith Fear. “UNK is a ball control and defensive orientated team and so are we. That worked in our favor because we knew that style of game. We also challenged our self in the preseason against some top level teams and we talked about putting ourselves back in that mindset.”
UNK (33-3) suffers a seventh straight NCAA Tournament loss, dating back to the 2012 regional final, and falls to 12-4 in NCAA disappointed and I certainly don’t think it was effort related or anything like that. Our girls played their hearts out. Credit to Harding for playing an unbelievable match and giving us all kinds of trouble,” said Loper head coach Rick Squiers. “They blocked us and then we couldn’t slow them down.” Kearney was an unprecedented 8-0 in five set matches this year until tonight’s setback. Hardin, a 6-3 middle and the 2018 GAC Player of the Year, had five kills in seven swings (.714 pct.) in the fifth to help her team grab leads of 6-3, 8-5 and 10-7. She also had three blocks with her last making it 13-8. Fittingly, a Hardin kill secured the Bisons first-ever NCAA Tourney win. Not having a single error in the fifth (9-0-23), Harding is making its fifth all-time NCAA appearance and first since 2005. Meanwhile, the Lopers hit .029 (7-6-34) in the fifth. “Zoe is a good blocker but in the fifth set is when she really decides to be a good blocker,” said Fear. “Kearney is an phenomenal defensive team but we just got on the better end of that tonight.” Among the national leaders in opponent hitting percentage (.100) coming into the tournament, UNK saw Hardin hit .238 with 71 kills. The Bisons got 20 kills from Reeves, 15 from Harding and 13 from outsides Emily Clayton and Madison Poen. “They got off to a great start in the fifth and twisted their rotation a bit, putting Hardin in the left front. They are known to do that and they were able to get some side outs and points from her. She then had some big blocks,” said Squiers.
Ogallala senior outside Kendall Schroer tallied a career-high 26 kills to power a UNK offense that hit a respectable .229. The Lopers hit a super .410 (18-2-39) in the fourth set to win by 10 and tie the match at two. This stretch include a rare 11-0 run with junior outside Julianne Jackson (Bonner Springs, Kan.) standing at the service line for 10 straight points. “When a set gets that bad you kind of have to let it go. It’s almost better to lose one set like that than lose a couple of heartbreakers. To be honest, that fourth set was not that hard to bounce back from,” said Fear. Hardin added, “We kind of treated it like a band-aided and kind of just ripped it off and moved on. We’re even and let’s get this fifth set and that’s what we did.” Winning in the GAC Tournament first round in five sets (15-13) over Northwestern Oklahoma State, HU also flashed solid defense besides its balanced and efficient offensive attack. Hardin had had 13 blocks (two solo), libero Taylor Lake had 33 digs and Poen and Clayton both had double doubles as they combined for 26 digs. “They hit .238 overall and .391 in the fifth set. We just don’t allow that and haven’t all year,” said Sqiuers. “From an offensive stand point we’ve got to take .229. We haven’t been a great offensive team all season and won a lot of matches hitting .150, .160. There’s just no way I thought if we hit .229 we would lose to anybody. Reeves, one of seven HU seniors, reached her 20 kills in just 47 swings (.383) with Clayton, Poen and Harding all hitting at least .237. For UNK, Papillion senior libero Ellie McDonnell had 30 digs, Kearney defensive specialist Morgan Stute added 16 more and South Dakota senior setter Lindsey Smith had 66 assists, 17 digs, three blocks and three kills. Finally, Grand Island junior outside Emma Benton (14 kills) and North Platte junior middle Josie Cox (five blocks) were big off the bench.