Gamecocks Face Colorado in Friday's NCAA Tournament Opener
The team is looking for its fifth win the program's tournament history
MINNEAPOLIS, MINN. – South Carolina volleyball is ready for its first postseason showdown in 16 years, as the Gamecocks face Colorado (18-13) at 5:30 p.m. ET in the opening round of the NCAA tournament Friday night. The two teams will play at Maturi Pavilion, home court for the University of Minnesota. The Golden Gophers (25-3) are the number two national seed and will host the first two rounds of the regional. Fans can watch the match against Colorado for free on the BTN2Go’s online-only stream.
GAMECOCKS BACK IN NCAA TOURNAMENT
Sunday’s tournament selection was a cause for celebration for South Carolina volleyball. The Gamecocks’ last postseason berth came in 2002. The program has been to the NCAA tournament seven times total (1984, 1995, 1997, 1998, 2000, 2001, 2002), making it as far as the second round. The team’s all-time NCAA tournament record is 4-7.
TOURNAMENT BERTH A DREAM COME TRUE FOR COLE
The team’s selection on Sunday night was a special moment for assistant coach Shonda Cole. Now in her fifth season on staff at South Carolina, Cole played at South Carolina from 2003-06 and is one of three members of the program to be elected to the athletic department’s hall of fame. She is the program record-holder for kills per set (4.26), points per set (4.87) and attacks (4,181) and was a three-time All-SEC honoree. Cole wasn’t fortunate enough to make a tournament during her illustrious playing career, but now will have a chance to represent Gamecock alumnae nationwide with the team this weekend.
The Buffaloes are 18-13 overall heading into tournament play, and returned four starters from their Sweet 16 team in 2017. Colorado rank in the top 25 nationally with 2.66 blocks per set, anchored at the net by Naghede Abu (1.41 blocks per set) and Danielle Price (1.14). On offense, Alexa Smith leads the team with 3.74 kills and 4.28 points per set, but close behind are Justine Spann (2.94 kills/set) and Anyse Smith (2.79 kills/set). Smith and Spann are standout six-rotation hitters; both are over 300 digs for the season to compliment their offensive production. Colorado went 10-10 in the Pac-12, and boast wins over top-25 opponents Utah, Washington, Oregon and UCLA.
SCOUTING MINNESOTA AND BRYANT
Minnesota is the number two overall seed in the tournament, winning the Big 10 with a 25-3 overall record and a 19-1 mark in the nation’s toughest volleyball conference. Sophomore oppposite hitter Stephanie Samedy leads the team with 3.51 kills per set and was a First Team All-American as a freshman in 2017. The Gophers have four other hitters behind Samedy who are at or above 2.50 kills per set, thanks to one of the nation’s best setters, senior and three-time all american Samantha Seliger-Swenson.
Bryant is making its first trip ever to the tournament after winning the Northeast Conference. The Bulldogs (22-12) led the NEC with 13.60 kills per set as a team, and also rank in the top 75 nationally in assists (12.74) and digs (16.40) per set, and opponent hitting percentage allowed (.176).
MCLEAN RETURNS HOME FOR NCAA TOURNAMENT
Brittany McLean transferred to South Carolina after two seasons at Minnesota, and is the only player on the roster with postseason experience. She came to the team after ending the 2017 on a high note with the Gophers, playing every set of their three NCAA tournament matches. In the opening round against North Dakota, McLean led the team with 13 kills and a .355 attack percentage in a sweep. In her two seasons at Minnesota, McLean played in nine matches. She was named Miss Volleyball for the state in 2015, and will compete this weekend just a half hour away from her home town of Rosemount.
ROBINSON AND SHIELDS EARN ALL-SEC HONORS
The Southeastern Conference announced its 2018 volleyball postseason awards Sunday afternoon, and South Carolina’s Mikayla Robinson and Mikayla Shields made the 18-woman All-SEC team. This is the first time in 16 years that the Gamecocks put multiple student-athletes on the conference’s postseason team, chosen by the league’s 13 coaches.
This is Robinson’s first all-conference honor but second postseason recognition, as the sophomore made the all-freshman team in 2017. This year, Robinson led the Gamecocks in blocks (96 total, 22 solo) and hitting percentage (.298). She was named the SEC Defensive Player of the Week twice, and her 22 solo blocks are the third-most for any Gamecock in the rally-scoring era (since 2001). Offensively, Robinson’s hitting percentage also ranks in the top ten for highest in a season during this scoring era.
Shields is now a back-to-back All-SEC honoree, making her the ninth Gamecock to do so since South Carolina joined the conference in 1991. The junior led the team with 3.22 kills per set and hit .272 despite leading all Gamecock hitters with 837 total attacks. She is just the fifth junior in program history to reach 1,000 career kills in three seasons, and currently ranks in the program’s all-time top 10 for kills. She hasn’t just been solid as an attacker, as she also led the team with eight double-doubles, ranks second on the team with 2.38 digs per set, and also reached a career high for service aces (26).
Last season, Mikayla Shields became the third sophomore in the program’s 46-year history to make it to 700 career kills. In the Oct. 24 match at Tennessee, Shields cracked the 1,000 kill plateau, making her the fifth Gamecock in program history to reach 1,000 as a junior. She is 15th member of the program ever to reach 1,000 kills, and the fourth-fastest (making it in her 80th career game). The last Gamecock to reach 1,000 kills was Juliette Thévenin in 2012.
MENDOZA ENJOYING STRONG 1ST SEASON at SC
Tom Mendoza became the 13th head coach in Gamecock volleyball’s 46-year history on Jan. 3, 2018. Mendoza is no stranger to the NCAA tournament, having spent 2016 and 2017 as head coach at High Point University, where he led the Panthers to back-to-back tournament appearances. Following the 2017 season, Mendoza was named the Big South’s and AVCA Southeast Region’s Coach of the Year, thanks to his efforts leading the Panthers to an at-large bid to the tournament. Already this year, South Carolina’s 19 wins are the most since 2008, have the most SEC wins since 2008, and have a .500 record in conference play for just the fourth time in the rally-scoring era. The Gamecocks ended 2017 with a RPI of 156, but despite returning five starters and their libero from last season, jumped up to the 32nd-best RPI in the country and a 9-8 record against team’s ranked in the RPI top 100.
KOEHLER SETTING HER SIGHTS ON SC RECORDS
Junior Courtney Koehler has guided the team’s offense as its lone setter for the past two seasons, and her production has her leaping up the program’s record book. The Asheville, N.C. native moved into the program’s all-time top 10 for career assists this season and she currently sits seventh overall in Carolina’s 46-year history and second among setters from the rally-scoring era (since 2001). Koehler’s 2017 total of 1,123 assists put her third in for most in a season for the era, her 1,035 going into the tournament ranks sixth, and she currently ranks fifth in the SEC with 9.95 assists per set.
Senior libero Aubrey Ezell has multiple service aces in 19 of the team’s 28 matches this season, and ranks third in the program’s all-time history for her career with 207. She currently leads the SEC and ranks second nationally with 0.67 aces/set, and is the NCAA’s active career leader. Her 70 aces this season are a career high, and are the most by any Gamecock since 1998. Accounting for every season where stats were kept – 1983 – Ezell currently ranks sixth overall. In her career, Ezell has two of the top 10 season totals in the SEC over the last decade.
IMPROVED LEFT SIDE ATTACK GUIDING OFFENSE
Consistent offensive numbers from the left-side attack was one of the team’s biggest weak spots in 2017, but a trio of hitters has the team clicking heading into postseason play. Junior Brittany McLean, sophomore Jess Vastine and senior Courtney Furlong have developed a strong rotation, with McLean and Furlong playing front row and Vastine moving in to a back-row attacker/passer role. The trio’s combined numbers (6.04 kills per set, .211 hitting percentage, .365 kill percentage) compare favorably to the combined numbers of the Gamecocks’ four main pin hitters from 2017 (5.54 k/s, .153 hitting percentage, .308 kill percentage).
ENJOY THE MOMENT, THIS WON’T GO ON FURLONG
Senior Courtney Furlong has put together the best stretch of her career in the final month of the season. The Oviedo, Fla. native has double-digit kills (52 total) in each of the final four matches of the regular season (3.47 per set) and is hitting .288. She set a new career high with 18 kills at LSU on Nov. 18, breaking a mark she set back in 2015 as a freshman. Furlong came to South Carolina after earning Miss Volleyball honors for the state of Florida, but was slowed by a back injury after her sophomore year. She has played in 97 career matches and has 355 career kills (1.47 per set) entering tournament play.
Aubrey Ezell is on an impressive streak for the Gamecocks. The senior has not missed a single set in her career, entering her first NCAA tournament on a stretch of 119 matches played. Currently, her 440 total sets are the most by any player in the rally-scoring era and her 119 matches rank third, but no other player has played as many consecutively.
WHEN THE GAMECOCKS WIN…
- The team is out-hitting the opposition .258 to .172, and are limiting opponents to 10.90 kills per set.
- Serving numbers are overwhelmingly positive, with an average of 1.76 aces per set, 1.61 service errors per ace and a team serving percentage of .879. Aubrey Ezell sets the tone with 0.72 aces per set and a serve percentage of .803.
- The team sees significant numbers from its middle hitters, as Claire Edwards and Mikayla Robinson combine for 4.21 kills per set, a .324 hitting percentage and a .467 kill percentage.
- The two also spark the defense, averaging 1.80 blocks per set in wins compared to just 1.20 in losses.
WHEN THE GAMECOCKS LOSE…
- The offense is hitting just .194 in losses, opponents are hitting .291. The team is 17-0 when out-hitting its opponents this season, 2-9 when it does not.
- Opponents have exploited the serve game, averaging 1.58 aces per set and just 1.46 service errors per ace (compared to 2.54 errors per ace in Gamecock wins).
- Offensive production from Carolina’s middles dips dramatically. Robinson and Edwards combine to average just 2.95 kills per set with a .118 hitting percentage and .344 kill percentage in six losses.
- Mikayla Shields’ kill totals are somewhat comparable win (3.37) or lose (2.91), but her efficiency drops considerably in losses. She hits .203 in the team’s nine losses compared to .309 in wins.
- Opponents are out-blocking South Carolina 2.59 to 1.42. The team is 10-0 when recording as many or more blocks as its opponent, but 9-9 when being out-blocked.
GAMECOCKS FIGHT THROUGH TOUGH SEC SLATE
South Carolina has reached its highest SEC win total in a decade, despite perhaps the toughest in-conference schedule of any SEC team, facing three of the top four teams in the final standings twice. For a comparison, the combined record of the six SEC teams the team faced twice this year was 69-39 (.639), compared to a 38-70 (.351) record for the six teams it faced just once. The Gamecocks finished fifth overall in the conference, a major jump from 2017’s 12th-place finish, thanks to a five-win improvement.
EZELL IN A CLASS OF HER OWN
Aubrey Ezell passed 175 career aces during the team’s win over Mississippi State on Friday, Sept. 21, making her the only player in the program’s 45-year history to reach 2,000 assists, 1,000 digs and 175 aces in a career. Currently, Ezell stands at 2,077 assists, 1,430 digs and 207 aces.
GAMECOCKS SIGN THREE IN FALL SIGNING PERIOD
Tom Mendoza welcomed three signees for the 2019 season on Nov. 15, signing Holly Eastridge (Avon, Ind.), McKenzie Moorman (Elmhurst, Ill.) and Kylee Stokes (Phoenix, Ariz.) in the fall signing period. All three newcomers are on the Senior Aces Top 150 list, and each have seen high levels of success at the high school and club level.
“We’re really excited about this class,” Mendoza said. “I think they bring a combination of competing for playing time right away and pushing our returners, and also having the ability to be future leaders for us. Most importantly, we’re excited about what they bring from a culture standpoint and how high-quality they are as young women.”
SEPTEMBER TO REMEMBER
The Gamecocks finished the month of September with a perfect 9-0 record that included three road wins. The last team to go undefeated through the entire month of September was the 1983 squad under head coach Elain Mozingo, who went on to finish the season 34-4.
The Gamecocks followed up with a 2-5 mark in October, adding to an spooky trend for the team. Over the last decade, South Carolina’s record for the month of October is just 23-62 (.271). The team’s best record during this stretch was a 4-5 mark during the 2014 campaign. The team has not won more than two matches in October since then.
The Gamecocks have made the Carolina Volleyball Center one of the toughest venues in the country over the last three seasons. Of the program’s top ten crowds all time in the CVC, nine have come in the last three years and three of the top five have come this season, including a program-record crowd of 3,458 at the Clemson match on Aug. 25. This season, the Gamecocks rank 33rd nationally for cumulative and 30th for average attendance and are 11-2 in the CVC – its highest home win total since 2008. On Nov. 4, the team won the 200th home match in CVC history when it took down Auburn, 3-1.
GAMECOCKS EARN WIN #800
South Carolina’s 3-0 sweep of Clemson on Aug. 25 was the 800th victory in the program’s history. Along the way, the team has 17 seasons with 20 wins or more and eight appearances in the NCAA tournament.
PHEISTER ROUNDS OUT GAMECOCK STAFF
Joining first-year head coach Tom Mendoza and fourth-year assistant coach Shonda Cole on the bench this fall will be Ethan Pheister, who spent the last three seasons as an assistant at LSU, working with the setters and helping coordinate the offense. The Tigers turned themselves around in 2017, going from nine wins in the previous season to 20 wins and an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. Pheister had prior experience coaching in the SEC in 2012, helping Arkansas make the NCAA tournament.
- South Carolina holds an 816-639 (.562) all-time record, dating back to 1973. The team’s 800th win of all time came on Aug. 25, 2018 against Clemson.
- The Gamecocks joined the SEC for volleyball in 1991, and have an all-time conference record of 193-271 (.418).
- In matches in the Carolina Volleyball Center, Carolina is 201-113 (.642) overall and 102-96 (.518) in SEC matches.
- Tom Mendoza became the program’s 13th head coach on Jan. 3, 2018. This is his third season overall as a head coach, with a career record of 66-27.