ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.--Playing as the top seed in the 2011 Mountain West Volleyball Championship, the Colorado State Rams will have a chance to prove they are the league's best, advancing to the tournament finals after a straight-sets win over Wyoming (25-22, 25-23, 25-20) Saturday night at New Mexico's Johnson Center.
The win earns CSU (21-5) a slot in Sunday's title game against No. 7 UNLV, which recorded its second straight upset earlier in the night, beating third-seeded TCU in four sets.
"It was a great win," Head Coach Tom Hilbert said. "We knew it was going to be emotional and a battle. I was surprised by the point runs given up by both teams, but we survived and played well in end-game situations. It was a good, competitive experience for us."
The win pits CSU in its seventh tournament championship, and puts it one win away from its fifth title and its 17th straight NCAA tournament berth.
"We're playing competitive right now," junior Dana Cranston said. "We had a lot of energy tonight and need to keep that going."
The Rams hit just .159, but held the Cowgirls (21-11) to .085 hitting. CSU was led by senior Katelyn Steffan's 12 kills and three blocks, and Cranston's 10 kills and three service aces. Brieon Paige (six blocks, five kills) and Megan Plourde (six blocks, eight kills) were the defensive leaders, in addition to libero Izzy Gaulia, who tallied 26 digs. CSU recorded 12 total blocks on the night compared to Wyoming's five.
"It's our Border War," Steffan said. "It was a neutral court tonight, and it was going to be who came out harder and played with more passion."
The first set featured five ties within the first 10 points, but CSU trailed just once (1-0), and used an 8-2 run late in the set to turn a 16-15 lead into a 24-17 advantage. Despite Wyoming's comeback attempt of five straight points, CSU was able to take the opening set when Wyoming's Camille Coffman's attack went wide.
In Set 2, the Rams received three consecutive points from Cranston, and pushed their lead to 12-7 four points later. But Wyoming went on an 11-0 run to take its first lead of the set, forcing CSU to use both of its timeouts and fall behind 18-12. The run was an opponent's largest against CSU all season. That's where Hilbert inserted redshirt freshman Kelsey Snider into the lineup.
"Kelsey came in and did a couple of nice things," Hilbert said, "and she also got a big kill later in the set. I felt like her presence was really good tonight. She was big for us, both offensively and blocking."
CSU went on a 5-0 run, gave up a point and then got three more in a row--capped with a Snider kill--to regain the lead, 20-19. Wyoming rebounded to take a 22-20 lead, but three straight Steffan kills, followed by a slam from Plourde sealed Set 2, 25-23.
Snider finished the match with five blocks and two kills.
Locked in a tight battle early in Set 3, CSU fell behind 12-9. But the Rams took five straight points--including two kills by Cranston and three block assists from Paige and Snider--to take a 14-12 lead. The Rams rolled from there, taking the set, 25-20.
"We came out a little overhyped at the beginning," Steffan said, "but we refocused. Deedj (Deedra Foss) had great distribution, and we just gave them a run for their money."
The Rams have now beaten the Cowgirls twice in the past two weeks after falling in five sets last month in Laramie. Prior to the setback, CSU had won 26 straight in the series, dating back to 1997.
Sunday's championship match will be played at 6 p.m. MT, and will be broadcast live on the CBS Sports Network (DirecTV: channel 613; Dish: 152; local Comcast 412, 846). UNLV, the defending MW tournament champion (2007) is the highest seed (No. 7) to ever play in the tournament's championship match. CSU is 2-0 against the Rebels in the MW tournament, and is 28-6 all-time against UNLV, including winning seven consecutive since 2008.
"UNLV's playing with a lot of fire and fight," Steffan said. "We need to play good defense tomorrow and keep getting big swings. We need to just stay focused on our game."