Ohio State women’s volleyball’s first points came easily Saturday night against USC.
Starting with an assisted block by Emily Londot and Adria Powell, asserting the Buckeyes’ dominance up front, Ohio State seemed to feed off the dominance of their three-set sweep of Tennessee State in the first round Friday night, taking a two-point lead with a Londot kill off an assist by Mac Podraza.
Unlike Friday night, however, USC was able to answer quickly, using a kill and a service ace by Kalyah Williams to give Ohio State its first taste of adversity in the NCAA Tournament.
It wasn’t anything the Buckeyes (21-9) couldn’t handle, recording the sweep of USC 25-21, 25-17 and 25-16 —their 11th three-set win of the season — to advance to their third-straight Sweet 16. Ohio State will take on No. 2 seed Minnesota on Thursday in Austin, Texas.
"I think we have proven it all season," Ohio State coach Jen Flynn Oldenburg said. "And now it's time to put our schedule to the test, and this team is ready for that. I think those battles early on in the season and early on in the Big Ten really prepared us. I don't really know if there's another team more prepared.
"There's a different vibe, and I love it."
The momentum created by three double-digit set wins against Tennessee State in the first round did not come immediately.
Neither the Buckeyes nor USC held more than a two-point lead for the first 30 serves of the first set, while the Trojans used three separate three-point runs to force Ohio State to keep fighting back from behind.
Senior defensive specialist Kylie Murr said Ohio State struggled with "defensive pride" early in the first half. It wasn't anything that needed to be solved with a conversation or separate motivation, she said. The Buckeyes just needed a spark.
Trailing 20-19 at the end of the first set, defensive specialist Sarah Sue Morbitzer hit the ball in the direction of setter Mac Podraza, who fooled the USC defense pushing the ball behind Trojan defenders for the kill.
From that moment, it was all Buckeyes, winning six of the next seven points including blocks by Londot and Powell to secure the 25-21 set win.
"I think those (blocks) or Mac's kill, I think that swayed some things and really got us going," Oldenburg said. "Not that we wait for those plays, but when those plays do happen, it's go time and the team responds."
The Buckeyes held a significant advantage up front, recording eight blocks to USC’s three, four of which were recorded in set one.
Momentum carried into the second set, using separate five-point and three-point runs to keep USC at bay and holding the Trojans back at the end of the set with kills by Gabby Gonzales and Londot.
Londot finished with a team-leading 13 kills while adding seven digs and two blocks.
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While the Trojans drew first with Williams’ third kill of the day, Londot brought the Buckeyes back on track in set three, starting a 6-0 run, which included three points by Morbitzer, whose first kill of the night was sandwiched between two aces: diving and tapping the ball between two Trojans defenders to an erupting Covelli Center crowd.
The energy continued for the Buckeyes into the third set, securing the dominant 25-16 set victory with Gonzales' ninth kill in her final game at the Covelli Center after two separate match points were reviewed and awarded to USC.
"We always talk, us seniors, about leaving a legacy," Gonzales said. "When we came here, the program wasn't where we wanted it to be. We knew we had to make some strides to continue to make it better. (Oldenburg) always brings it up: "Leave your legacy. What are you going to leave behind for people to remember you for?"
Podraza's work continued as Ohio State's offensive catalyst. The Big Ten setter of the year brought in 31 assists along with one kill, six digs and two blocks.
Murr, the Big Ten's defensive player of the year, had double-digit digs for the straight game, leading the team with 14 along with four assists, which, she said was representative of how Ohio State played: keeping the "foot on the gas" until the Buckeyes secured the victory.
It's how Murr wanted her final home game with Ohio State to go.
"Especially (since) it's my last game in Covelli, there's no other way I would want to go out of here," Murr said. "It was just a really good feeling, seeing everyone doing their jobs. Everyone just having a smile on their face, which is really fun. It was just enjoyable."
But unlike last season, heading into a Sweet 16 matchup with Georgia Tech, there is no sense of relief for Ohio State.
It's not about the next opponent for the Buckeyes. The focus is instead on themselves, knowing that if the players play like they did against Tennessee State and USC, similar results will happen.
"We've been in this spot where we haven't been past the Sweet 16," Murr said. "I want nothing more than to go out there and own the court like we did tonight and get past the Sweet 16 and get rid of this stigma that Ohio State can't get past it."
This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Ohio State sweeps USC in second round of NCAA Tournament