Nelson’s Career-Best Helps Huskies Survive Zags

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BOISE, Idaho – One year ago the Huskies were pushed to a fifth set before outlasting Gonzaga during the first weekend of the season, so entering today’s meeting they were not going to overlook the Bulldogs. Nevertheless, history repeated itself today, as No. 4 Washington (2-0) received its first big challenge and had to dig deep to stave off Gonzaga in five sets, 26-24, 27-29, 25-20, 24-26, 15-8. Senior All-American Kaleigh Nelson’s career-best 26 kills were a big part of the difference.

The match was the second of three for UW this weekend at the Northwest Challenge, hosted by Boise State in the Bronco Gym. Washington will have a quick turnaround to play BSU later this afternoon, scheduled for 4:00 p.m. Pacific.

Washington had to rally from nine points down in the first set, saving set point before taking its first lead at 25-24 and closing it out. But Gonzaga would not deflate, as slow starts plagued UW in several sets. The second set was much the same as the first, with UW walking down a big deficit and then earning set point late, but Gonzaga saved that one and came back to win. The Huskies improved their hitting percentage in every set, getting up to .344 in a set three win, but Gonzaga came back with another two-point win in set four. Like last year’s 15-9 final set, the Huskies were up to the challenge, hitting .636 in the last frame while Gonzaga hit -.062 and UW closed it out, 15-8.

Nelson zoomed past her previous career-high of 20 kills set last season in a win over Utah. Her 26 kills today came on 42 attempts with just four errors for a .524 hitting percentage. Fellow senior Krista Vansant got in a groove late in the match and wound up with 19 kills on a .350 attack percentage. Lianna Sybeldon had seven kills and eight blocks, while Katy Beals had a team-best 35 assists. Cassie Strickland and Tia Scambray tied for the team lead with nine digs and Scambray added six blocks.

Overall, UW outhit Gonzaga, .302 to .181, but Gonzaga led in aces (5-4) and made less service errors (10 for UW, 5 for Gonzaga). Washington had 15 blocks to 11 for Gonzaga but the Bulldogs outdug UW, 50-42.

Gonzaga took the first six points of the first set as UW struggled passing at the outset and had to take timeout. Finally Sybeldon got UW on the board out of the break and UW served for the first time at 1-6. Vansant crushed her first swing for a kill, but UW surrendered another four point run to fall behind 3-12 before a Kaleigh Nelson kill. Scambray and Wade had a stuff and then Scambray tapped down an overpass to cut it to 6-12. A series of errors on both sides and a Gonzaga kill made it 9-16 and the Huskies called their last timeout. Crissy Jones had a tough swing from the left out of the break for a kill, then killed the next rally from the right for 11-16. She then tipped over the block for a third straight kill and Gonzaga called its first timeout. Scambray continued the run out of the break with an ace before Gonzaga had a kill in serve receive for 13-17. A Vansant finish and a Bulldogs error and a Husky stuff got UW within one point at 17-18. Vansant and Wade then roofed Savannah Blinn to tie it up at 18-all. Gonzaga earned a kill to retake the lead, 18-19, then blocked Vansant for 18-20. But Vansant responded with a kill and a Gonzaga error tied it again at 20-all, and Gonzaga took its last timeout. Scambray had a swing for UW’s first lead but was blocked. Gonzaga then dug UW and converted the next two points to get back up 20-23 until Nelson stopped the run with a kill. She backed it up with another and then Sybeldon and Scambray had a rejection to once again tie it at 23-23. Again UW had a chance but was blocked for set point Gonzaga, but this time UW got the clutch block for 24-all. Jones subbed in and teamed with Sybeldon for a block on the next rally and UW’s first lead all set was at set point, 25-24. A key dig from Strickland led Tanner to set Scambray for a kill on the next point as UW escaped with the 26-24 win, taking six of the final seven points.

Freshman Courtney Schwan entered to start the second set for the Huskies. But again Gonzaga came out hot with the first three points until Schwan rolled in her first shot for a kill. A bad set called against Beals made it 3-8 Gonzaga but Nelson got the touch call for a kill and then hit down an overpass off a Vansant serve for 5-8. Another tough Vansant pass led to a setting error on Gonzaga and then the Bulldogs hit wide and UW was back within a point at 7-8. The teams traded points, with Wade and Jones hitting for points. UW fell back down by three points, but rallied back for three straight to tie it up at 14-14 on a Vansant roll shot kill. Vansant and Nelson helped UW stay even, and the Huskies took their first lead at 17-16 on a block by Sybeldon and Schwan. The Huskies kept inching ahead by one with Nelson and Sybeldon kills but Gonzaga answered until an ace gave them the lead back at 19-20. Strickland responded with her own ace off the defense into the seats, and then a second one straight to the floor for 22-20 and a Gonzaga timeout. But Gonzaga got the sideout out of the break and then tied it with a block and went back on top 22-23 after UW hit long. A block from Jones and Wade got UW back even on the next point, but Gonzaga scored to get set point for the second set in a row. Vansant put it away from the right side then put Gonzaga in trouble with a tough serve that GU hit out and UW was up 25-24. After Gonzaga’s last timeout, they stayed alive with a change-up kill over the block, then Nelson misfired and Gonzaga was back at set point and UW took timeout. Nelson bounced back with a kill for 26-26 but Gonzaga earned a third set point. Again Nelson wiped it away with a right side kill and Kim Condie subbed in to serve. Gonzaga killed it in serve-receive for a fourth set point and this time UW could not save it as the Huskies were dug and Gonzaga converted its chance to end the set, 29-27. Nelson had six kills and Vansant had five but the rest of the team had just four total.

The Huskies were finally able to crack open an early lead in set three, behind strong serving from Mel Wade, a block from Sybeldon and Scambray, and a kill from Nelson on the right that made it 6-2 before Wade served long. Gonzaga then had two straight blocks to get right back into it at 6-5 before a service error ended its 3-0 run. But Gonzaga took the next two to tie it up at 7-all. Some solid Strickland serves helped UW go up 11-8. The teams went back and forth, with Nelson hammering one from the right to get put UW ahead 15-12 at the media timeout. A tough Scambray serve led to a GU error and 17-13 Huskies. Jones snuffed out a mini Gonzaga rally with a right side blast for 20-16. A rocket from Nelson on the right bumped the score to 22-18 and Gonzaga took timeout. After a long rally, Nelson ended another out of the break for 23-18, then Scambray and Sybeldon earned a weak side stuff for set point and Gonzaga took time. The Bulldogs saved two but Beals went back to Nelson on the right side for her eighth kill of the set to end it, 25-20. Nelson was 8-for-11 with no errors in the set, hitting .727.

In the fourth set, it was Gonzaga that came out hot once again, taking five straight points after UW won the first point to force a Husky timeout at 1-5. It was 2-8 before Nelson got one down from the right but Gonzaga answered right back. The teams went back and forth for several points, UW donating two service errors for 6-12. Wade finished off a rally after some great Husky defense for 8-12. Nelson tipped off the block and down then Gonzaga caught the antenna for 11-14. Gonzaga built back up to a 12-17 lead with a kill and a block and the Bulldogs added a couple more for 13-19 and UW had to take timeout. Vansant tipped for a kill out of the break, then hit through the block for another point, but Gonzaga’s setter dumped for a kill to make it 15-20. The Huskies had a 3-0 run on two Nelson kills and a Wade finish to get to 19-21 and force a Gonzaga timeout. Gonzaga overpassed a Wade serve and UW ran it to Nelson who put it away to trim the gap to one, and on the next point, Sybeldon and Scambray rejected Blinn to tie it up at 22, and force the Gonzaga timeout. Gonzaga took the next point but Nelson ended a long, crucial rally with an off-speed kill for 23-all. Gonzaga got the side out for set point, but UW answered with a Scambray kill in serve-receive. Gonzaga tipped for an easy kill and 24-25, and then Vansant sent one wide to end it and send it to a fifth set, 24-26. UW lost the set despite hitting .406, as Gonzaga was nearly as hot at .378 and earned three more kills.

Gonzaga started the fifth with an ace but Vansant hammered a kill on the next rally. Nelson hit a sharp crosscourt angle from the right for a 3-2 edge and then Vansant got up to block a slide attempt for 4-2 and then Gonzaga sailed one long for 5-2 and a Gonzaga timeout. Gonzaga broke the run but Vansant responded with a kill and a tough Vansant serve produced a Bulldogs miss for 7-3 Huskies. Nelson slammed another from the right for 8-4 as the teams switched sides. Scambray had a clutch swing on the left off the block for 9-5, then a lift was called on GU for 10-5 Dawgs. Bailey Tanner’s float serve was passed too tight and led to another Bulldogs error for 11-5 and Gonzaga’s last timeout. With the Huskies up 12-5, Gonzaga got a kill and an ace and had a good swing at the next ball but misfired for 13-7. Sybeldon’s quick strike from the middle got UW to match point at 14-8, and Vansant hammered it into the block and down to finally end the morning marathon, 15-8. Vansant had four kills without an error on five swings plus a solo block in the set, as UW hit .636 overall to close it out.

The Huskies will have to recuperate quickly as they face the host Boise State Broncos this evening in a match scheduled to start at 4:00 p.m. Pacific time.

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