After an attack error from New Mexico State in the fourth set, Oregon junior right-side hitter Willow Johnson took a step back to take her turn at serving.
Johnson’s one serve quickly turned into two, as the Ducks tied the Aggies. And two serves became three and so on; until eleven straight serves from Johnson led way to an 11-0 run, three service aces and a nine-point Oregon lead.
“She just has that crazy left arm and people don’t know where it’s going,” Senior outside hitter Lindsey Vander-Weide said. “It’s really comforting having her back there, just getting ace after ace because we don’t have to do anything.”
With the help of Johnson, the No. 15 Oregon Ducks (21-10) defeated the New Mexico State Aggies(24-8) in a four-set win of 3-1 Thursday night at Matthew Knight Arena to claim the first-round victory of the NCAA Championship Tournament.
Mixed with Johnson’s strong performance, Vander-Weide held down Oregon’s offense throughout the match to give the Ducks their first home-match NCAA Tournament victory since 2014.
“Lindsey Vander-Weide, I cannot say enough stuff about her tonight,” head coach Matt Ulmer said. “I thought she was just fantastic. She was an All-American tonight. Willow Johnson didn’t have the best offensive night, but then how good was her serving at the end. That might have been the difference, her serving and Lindsey’s offense.”
Oregon earned the win in the fourth set of the match, thanks to Johnson’s 11-straight serves. Even when the Aggies halted Johnson, Oregon didn’t slow. Instead the Ducks continued, using a 5-0 run to cast a 15-point-lead over the Aggies. Vander-Weide swung down the final point for the fourth set win of 25-11, giving Oregon the match victory.
“For me, I knew I wasn’t having a good offensive night,” Johnson said of her performance. “So, I just decided to go back and have that opportunity to serve. I decided to go back there and just really focus in and try to give something to my team.”
Oregon started the third set strong, preventing New Mexico State from gaining momentum as a 3-0 run gave the Ducks a five-point lead at 18-13. Oregon’s run stopped as the Aggies put up their own 3-0 run to get within three at 21-18. Brooke Van Sickle closed the set with a kill to give Oregon the set win of 25-21 and the 2-1 match lead.
In set one, points were back-and-forth before New Mexico State found its way to a five-point lead at 9-4. Following a timeout, Oregon went on a 4-0 run thanks to two kills by Vander-Weide and two attack errors from the Aggies. Oregon earned its first lead of the game at 14-13 and followed with a quick 5-0 run to get three-ahead. A service error from the Aggies gave Oregon the set win of 25-22.
New Mexico State’s only set win of the night came in the second. The Aggies matched Oregon’s every point. Oregon led briefly at 12-9, before the Aggies found their grove. New Mexico State led by as much as eight when they earned set point at 24-16, before winning the set, 25-18.
Vander-Weide led all players with 18 kills on her double-double with 10 digs. Johnson led both teams with four service aces, and senior setter August Raskie led with 37 assists.
Oregon will move on to the tournament’s second round match Friday night at 7 against Baylor at Matthew Knight Arena. The Bears overcame a two-set deficit Thursday evening to beat Hawai’i, 3-2, in the tournament’s first round.
Follow Maggie Vanoni on Twitter: @maggie_vanoni