Texas starts NCAA tournament with sweep against Sacred Heart as Nalani Iosia shines

Hannah Williford

It was all business for Texas on Thursday, and that was exactly the way head coach Jerritt Elliott wanted it.

In the first round of the NCAA tournament, Texas dominated Sacred Heart in a 3-0 sweep at Gregory Gym. The Pioneers struggled to return balls from Texas’ hard hitters, and despite a significant lead, the Longhorns refused to give up volleys with scrappy plays on the ball.

Sacred Heart head coach Rob Machan said he felt the Texas team was one of the most physical teams he has seen in his time of coaching.

“They would do things that we just can’t practice against,” Machan said. “And the mindset was more like, ‘Good for you.’”

The first volley for Texas became the story of the first set: A spike by junior hitter Logan Eggleston that was unreachable for anyone on Sacred Heart’s side of the court. While Texas pulled away quickly for a seven-point lead midway through the first set, it didn’t stop the team from picking up scrappy plays.

To help their run, sophomore Nalani Iosia dove to the floor to save a volley that was destined to land on Texas’ side of the court after a failed block. With a backwards facing bump at the back of the court, Iosia delivered another ball to junior opposite hitter Skylar Fields, which she managed to turn into a kill. 

Despite Texas’ strong start to the set, which at one point put them up 20-9, the end began to go downhill with a six-point streak that put Texas out of sorts. A kill by junior blocker Molly Phillips put an end to the run and the set, 25-19.

“We definitely just needed to focus on first-ball contact,” Fields said. “I think that they were having some really good service pressure, so we just needed to focus in and close them out.

Texas started to overpower Sacred Heart in the second set. The Pioneers could not return hits from Eggleston or Fields, and Phillips kept them on their toes from the right. But what made the Longhorns untouchable was a series of miraculous digs from Iosia. 

On at least three separate occasions in the second set, the libero pulled out a dig from some of the best hits by Sacred Heart, including a scramble across the court on hands and knees to reach the ball with one arm before it fell on the ground. Texas took set two 25-17.

“Coming from last season, we had this thing called ‘sous chef,’ which is like being good away from the ball,” Fields said. “We focus on trying to be a defensive team so having those scrappy plays (is) really big for us.”

Facing elimination from the tournament, Sacred Heart put up a battle against Texas in the third set, keeping with the Longhorns until the end of the set for Texas to pull out a 25-19 victory. 

Eggleston, who won Big 12 Player of the Year and Big 12 Offensive Player of the Week four times this season, continued to be a menace for Texas on all parts of the court. Eggleston left Thursday’s match with 12 kills, two service aces and six blocks. Fields left with 11 kills and a .476 hitting percentage.

Friday, Texas will take on Rice for the third time this season, after two conference matches. Elliott said he thinks the match will come down to Texas’ ability to play their own game and execute.

Despite calls from Elliott for a sold out game earlier this week, many seats in the gym remained empty for the first round.

“The Longhorn fans put a lot of expectations on teams and coaches here,” Elliott said. “We would like the same effort and energy that it takes to be able to create a program and get our players to where they are at now to have fans come out and support us.”