GRAND FORKS, N.D.-- North Dakota made history with a sweep of Northern Arizona to win the Big Sky Conference Tournament Saturday evening at Betty Engelstad Sioux Center. UND will advance to the NCAA Division I Tournament for the first time in school history.
Junior Faith Dooley was named the tournament's Most Valuable Player to headline a four-player allotment for the champs. Tamara Merseli, Sydney Griffin and Chelsea Moser all also earned honors along with NAU's Jensen Barton and Lauren Jacobsen and Sacramento State's Lexi Skalbeck.
Merseli produced 11 kills in the title match followed by 10 from Dooley, who etched her 1,000th career kill in the win. Alivia Fraase added 22 digs for the Fighting Hawks.
"I just have so much joy and pride for these 17 young women," UND head coach Mark Pryor said. "I am so proud to see them accomplish a goal that they put forth at midnight 102 days ago. We talked at our first practice about “if you want to be last, you have to be willing to be first”. First in the practice gym, first to push yourself harder internally, first to recognize and resolve conflict, and first to recognize your areas for growth. This team did that every step of the way.
"Everything that this team has put their mind to, they have accomplished. It is really that simple. These young women deserve all the credit. They all bought in to what the staff wanted to do, and from there, they became a group that typifies selfless behavior, but at the same time they all remained relentless in the pursuit of their goals.
A boisterous crowd of 1,512 was into every point from the first serve, trying to usher its team to the Big Dance for the first time in the Division I era. NAU put up the biggest fight of any North Dakota opponent in the tournament but didn't have an answer for the balanced Fighting Hawk attack.
There were eight tie scores and a half-dozen lead changes in the opening frame. UND strung together three straight points to un-knot a 12-all tie and stayed in front to win the opener, 25-22. A key stretch came when NNAu sneakd back within one at 19-18 until Ashley Brueggeman book-ended a pair of kills around a Moser finish to keep the home team in front.
In the second set, it was more of the same as UND used the 12-all score as anogther springboard. This time, North Dakota ripped off five straight points in the mid-part of the stanza and finished with a 25-20 score to go up two sets to none.
UND jumped in front in the third and never looked back, racing to the sweep, its fifth straight, and its 11th straight win. A 12-4 run in the middle of that set fueled that surge. UND scored the final three points with Merseli powering home two straight kills and then a Kaylie Jorgenson attack attempt hit the left pin to send the team into a dogpile on the southend court at the Betty.
Brueggeman had nine kills to complement Dooley and Merseli's efforts while regular season Big Sky MVP Sydney Griffin had 36 assists to go along with eight kills, two blocks and two digs.
"Tonight’s match was not won simply tonight. It was won with each 6:30 a.m. lifting session. It was won with each monotonous practice drill that they completed. It was won with how they made choices to treat teammates well, and to remain focused and dialed in to obtain their goal. Tonight was not a shock to many people, but more of a public service announcement that this team is special.
"I want to thank my staff for all their hard work in making this possible. They are amazing people that make a stressful job much more fun than it actually is sometimes, and I am grateful for that. I also want to thank the Grand Forks community for all their support this year. Without their support tonight, it may have been a different outcome. This championship belongs to Grand Forks as well as UND volleyball."
UND will find out its opponent in the 64-team NCAA Tournament during the NCAA Selection Show on Sunday, November 27 at 9:00 p.m. on ESPNU.
Notes: UND is making its first NCAA Tournament appearance in Division I and third all-time (2002, 2003 in Division II) ... UND ties its school record with 26 wins (tied in Pryor's first season- 2014) ... North Dakota has won 11 straight matches overall and its home winning streak also stands at 11 ... North Dakota started the season 7-7 and is 19-2 since ... North Dakota is now 4-4 all-time in the Big Sky Conference Tournament ... UND's win gives the host the title for just the third time in the last eight seasons ... Dooley's 1000th kill came on her first swing of the night ... She became the 17th UND player to reach 1,000 kills and just the fifth to do so before her senior season ... UND has swept five straight matches in its winning streak and has dropped just three sets in the 11 matches (33-3) ... North Dakota hit .308 for the tournament and outscored its opponents, 225-160.