Volleyball to face head coach Watson’s alma mater BYU in first round of NCAA tournament

When the ASU volleyball team lost Friday to UA, it seemed all hope of making the NCAA tournament was lost.

In weeks prior, coach Jason Watson said he wanted his team to finish the regular season 7-3 in order to give the Sun Devils a legitimate shot at making the tournament.

But ASU (19-13, 8-12 Pac-12) managed to squeak into the tourney on Selection Sunday, and at this point, it doesn’t really matter how.

The Sun Devils earned the program’s 17th tournament berth Sunday and the program’s first back-to-back tournament trips since 1999-2000.

When it was all said and done, ASU was one of nine Pac-12 teams to make the national tournament, more than any other conference. It was also the first year nine Pac-12 teams were chosen.

Certainly Watson and company were ecstatic when they learned of their NCAA berth, the program’s second straight national tournament bid. But then the Sun Devils learned they would be facing Watson’s alma mater, BYU, in the first round. And the icing on the cake was the location of their first and possible second games: Hawaii.

But the Sun Devils can’t afford to be distracted by the lush beaches of The Aloha State – ASU plays its most important match of the season Friday night.

No. 21 BYU enters Friday’s match nearly two weeks after dropping the West Coast Conference title game to then-No. 9 San Diego, a team the Cougars swept when San Diego was No. 2 back in September.

The Cougars, who received an at-large bid, finished the season 22-6 and 15-3 in WCC play, with a perfect 11-0 home record.

Watson, who coached the Cougars from 2005-07, is certainly familiar with their style of play. Watson took BYU to the tournament in all three of his years with the university, including an Elite Eight trip in 2007. He actually also attended BYU as a student from 1990-94, where he started all four years on the men’s volleyball team, serving as captain for two.

But the ties to the Utah area don’t stop there: BYU freshman defensive specialist Makenna Santiago and ASU freshman opposite hitter Kizzy Willey both attended Lone Peak High School in Highland, Utah.

Watson and Willey will need to use their familiarity with BYU to try and slow down sophomore outside hitter Alexa Gray, who leads the Cougars with 414 kills and 3.83 kills per set. She was named to the All-WCC first team Tuesday.

Middle blocker Whitney Young also earned conference honors as freshman of the year. Young averaged 1.55 blocks per set to lead the Cougar squad.

Friday’s match against BYU begins at 8:00 p.m. MST in Honolulu.

Additional NCAA Tournament Notes:

– Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott announced Tuesday the all-conference awards for women’s volleyball. ASU sophomore outside hitter Macey Gardner was named to the All-Conference team and freshman outside hitter BreElle Bailey was named to Pac-12 All-Freshman team.

– Watson is 4-4 in five NCAA tournament appearances, with all four victories coming at BYU. He has yet to win a tournament game at ASU.

– If the Sun Devils get past BYU, they will face the winner of No. 11 Hawaii and Idaho State on Saturday. The Idaho State Bengals won the Big Sky conference, and the Hawaii Rainbow Wahine earned a share of the Big West conference along with UCSB and CSU Northridge. ASU is 3-0 all-time vs. Idaho State but just 1-7 vs. Hawaii.

Reach the reporter at bmargiot@asu.edu or follow him on Twitter @BenMargiott.