On Friday, there were curtains.
Long black ones enclosed the media room near the southwest entrance of Hearnes Center. Rows of chairs filled the seldom-used venue. Postseason procedure was followed, teams spoke at tables and into microphones.
Around the court, blue NCAA banners were draped across the arena, officials wore white polo shirts emblazoned with the league insignia. Before the game, there were no high fives to young fans, no introductory videos. The volleyballs were blue and gray, not black and gold.
And although No. 4 Missouri (35-0) swept IUPUI (19-14) in the first round (25-22, 25-15, 25-18), the Tigers, nine days removed from their last match, weren’t the same in the NCAA-adorned atmosphere.
“I don’t think, in particular, we were sharp,” Missouri coach Wayne Kreklow said. “We weren’t quite with it out there a lot of times tonight.”
The last time Missouri played was Nov. 27 against Arkansas, the Tigers’ Senior Night. That’s when Missouri clinched its undefeated regular season, when it celebrated its senior leaders’ accomplishments. But in the postseason of any sport, momentum rules as king. Then, the Tigers had it.
Tonight they didn’t.
“I felt like that kind of hurt us a bit,” Kreklow said. “We were a little bit out of rhythm.”
The Tigers were slow and stumbling in the first set while the eager Jaguars, who made their first-ever NCAA tournament appearance, danced with Goliath, holding out to a 16-13 lead tie. Six first-set errors handicapped Missouri’s offense.
“We knew that we were playing kind of flustered, and very uptight,” said junior blocker Whitney Little, who had six kills and two solo blocks.
Missouri rallied to tie the match at 16, and IUPUI coach Steve Payne burned a timeout. Missouri returned from it confidently, and the Tigers went on a 9-5 run to steal back the set.
“I think that we really just tried to settle down, take a deep breath and get back to what we know,” said senior hitter Lisa Henning.
The Tigers played quicker and cleaner behind Henning (15 kills, 10 digs) and senior setter Molly Kreklow (41 assists, 14 digs), both of who had double-doubles. But things weren’t the same. Missouri dropped set points and coughed up momentum gained through streaks of points at the start of the second and third sets.
“It wasn’t really any glaring thing but just a whole combination of small little things that kept us from really getting into a flow out there,” Wayne Kreklow said.
Before Missouri’s match, No. 19 Purdue swept Central Arkansas with force. The Boilermakers were as sharp as they’ve been all season, while the Sugar Bears were dull. When the Tigers play the Boilermakers Saturday, it’ll be more of postseason intangibles, more than just playing ability.
“If we’re trying to set somebody up to be overconfident, we probably did a good job at that tonight,” Wayne Kreklow said. “Hopefully they’re over there going, ‘(Missouri) isn’t very good,’ because I do think we can play a lot better than that.”