Missouri junior Melanie Crow played as if possessed Thursday during the opening round of the NCAA Tournament at the Hearnes Center.
Whether dominating from the service line or at the net, Crow, a transfer from Mississippi, was the driving force behind the No. 15 seed Tigers’ three-set sweep against Mid-American Conference champion Northern Illinois.
“She provides some physicality that we really needed, especially on the pins (sideline antennae) out there,” MU coach Wayne Kreklow said. “... She was a huge difference-maker obviously for us tonight.”
Crow finished with a match-best 17 kills, a season-high for a three-set sweep, and added a match-high four aces, which tied for her season-best in three sets.
Never miss a local story.
“I just go, swing high, let’s hope it gets in,” said Crow, whose 22 1/2 total points were 10 1/2 more than any other player.
Mizzou senior teammate Carly Kan, who had the second most points in the match (12), finished with 10 kills, bringing her within 10 of second place on Mizzou’s all-time career list, and added a match-best 14 digs.
Senior defensive specialist Alexa Ethridge, a Lee’s Summit North graduate, also had 14 digs, while junior Kira Larson added eight kills and a match-high three blocks.
Sophomore middle blocker Alyssa Munlym finished with six kills and two blocks, while Crow and senior middle blocker Emily Thater also had two blocks. Thater chipped in five kills.
Buoyed by a rowdy crowd of 2,119, Missouri, 26-5, surged in front early in the opening set, but Northern Illinois rallied and forced a 10-10 tie before Kreklow called a timeout.
After a side-out by Crow, she served the next six points, including three aces and back-to-back kills — a personal run of dominance that buried the Huskies 17-10.
Crow hit s sizzling .351 on 37 total attacks with only four hitting errors to pace MU, which outhit Northern Illinois .404 to .221.
The Tigers rolled to a 25-16 win from there, dominated the second set 25-13 and polished off the win with a 25-20 win in the third set.
“As a team, we have a calm confidence about us, and we believe in each other so much,” Crow said. “I think that really helps a lot of people with nerves.”
Mizzou’s win sets up an NCAA second-round rematch with Purdue at 6 p.m. Friday at the Hearnes Center. Purdue swept Iowa State 26-24, 25-21, 25-13 in Thursday’s first match.
The Boilermakers, 19-13, eliminated the then-undefeated Tigers in the same round and on the same floor in the 2013 NCAA tourney.
“I’m excited,” Kan said of Friday’s match with Purdue. “It’s going to be a really good game. They’re a good team again, so I’m just excited to have a rematch. … It’s been about three years now, but I still remember that moment right after, and I think my fellow seniors do too.”
Kreklow certainly does.
“You never forget,” Kreklow said. “It’s one of those strange things in coaching, but you forget the wins. But you never forget the losses — (they’re) the things that always stick with you unfortunately.”
Purdue is a battle-tested in the uber-tough Big Ten, which earned the top three national seeds for this season’s tournament, but Mizzou believes it’s more battle-hardened than the team three years ago.
“We’ve been in those situations where we’ve been down and things haven’t gone our way,” Kreklow said. “That will help these guys a little bit, but it’s still going to be a very tough match, because they’re just a big, physical, athletic bunch and it’s going to pose a lot of problems for us.”