Northern Colorado Volleyball defeated Weber State, 3-2, on the Seniors’ night

Most people associate the phrase “survive and advance” with March Madness, but on Saturday it applied to the University of Northern Colorado’s volleyball program.

Graduate student and team captain Kailey Jo Ince jumped high — right in the middle of the net — and hit a massive swing off Weber State’s block. It was only fitting that the fifth year recorded the senior night’s match-winning kill.

UNC (17-8, 11-3 Big Sky) defeated the Wildcats (16-9, 10-4 Big Sky) in five sets to break the tie for first place in the conference (25-11, 25-17, 23rd – 25, 18-25, 21-19).

It also repeated the last three league tournament title fights and extended the Bears’ winning streak to nine.

“That’s what you would expect from a championship game,” said Lyndsey Oates, Northern Colorado coach. “Weber are a really, really good team and we had talked before the game about how we need to outlast them and who will play better longer? I don’t know if we did that; Both teams played very well. This match could have gone either way.”

UNC got off to a hot start with a commanding 14-point win in the first set. Then the Bears continued that and took a 2-0 lead. Of course, Weber State responded with two victories of their own.

Both teams traded points for most of the fifth. Neither could afford to let the other go. It was too close and the opponent was too good, eclipsing 20 points in a fifth set that usually ends in 15.

After Weber held a 19-18 lead, the Bears finally found their run. Seniors Rachel Hickman, Mackenzie Harris and Ince recorded three straight kills to seal the win.

“We didn’t want to be the team that leaves the word with regret,” Harris said. “That was the biggest deciding factor, especially in the fifth set.”

Ince led the team with 23 kills at a .353 hit rate. She added 17 digs for the double-double.

Harris also finished with a double-double and recorded 16 kills and 12 digs.

Eventually, Hickman finished with nine kills and four blocks. Despite not having as many numbers as her teammates, Hickman got into the clutch. She was a big reason UNC won.

“I just thought, ‘My team needs me now,'” Hickman said. “I just trusted that Syd (Cole) would get me the right balls at the right time and she did. I am also very proud of her.”

Cole contributed 57 assists, one more than all the Wildcats combined.

As a team, UNC recorded 68 kills with a .245 hit rate. It added 12 blocks, three aces and 99 digs, No. 7 all-time in a single match.

Ince said she believes the fans, their families and the emotions helped carry the team.

“It was just great,” said Ince. “I don’t think we could have done it without her. Without it, I would say another ball game.”

The bears obviously made mistakes, but they reacted and showed mental toughness. That’s what counts, because that’s what wins championships and earns spots in NCAA tournaments.

“We had a lot of five-set games. They didn’t go our way at first, and lately they’ve been going our way,” Oates said. “In our championship year you have to win five sets. That was important so that we could build trust and trust in ourselves that we can win in this situation.”

Northern Colorado will finish the regular season away. It plays Eastern Washington on Friday at 7 p.m. and Idaho on Saturday at 6 p.m. The Big Sky Tournament takes place November 23-26 at Weber State.