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No. 2 Texas sets up a Rice rematch by sweeping Sacred Heart in its NCAA Tournament opener

After going 24-1 during the regular season, Texas entered the NCAA volleyball tournament as its No. 2 overall seed. Only Louisville is seeded higher.

On Thursday night, however, Sacred Heart coach Rob Machan argued that the Longhorns may actually be under-seeded.

Machan labeled Texas as the team to beat after Sacred Heart was swept in UT's tournament opener. Logan Eggleston's 12 kills led the way as Texas rolled to the 25-19, 25-17, 25-19 win at Gregory Gym.

"I haven't seen a better team than they have," Machan said. "My expectations, and it's only my opinion, but I don't think there's a better team in the tournament. I'm excited to see what they can do."

More: Longhorns eye a title in postseason return to Gregory Gym

Texas (25-1) faced an early challenge from Sacred Heart, which won the Northeast Conference title. Up 24-13 in the first set, UT was unable to quickly put the Pioneers (19-10) away.

Texas middle blocker Brionne Butler spikes the ball during Thursday night's sweep of Sacred Heart in the NCAA Tournament's first round at Gregory Gym. The Longhorns faced Rice in the second round late Friday.

Sacred Heart fought off six straight set points. During the late run, Texas allowed two aces and committed two attacking errors. The only timeout Texas used on Thursday was called during that spurt.

Eventually, UT's Molly Phillips secured the opening-set win with a kill. Afterward, the junior said that "We had 24 for a while, so we knew we just had to focus on what we could do."

Added Skylar Fields: "We definitely just needed to focus on first-ball contact. I think that they were having some really good service pressure. We just needed to focus on what we're doing and close the (set)."

Texas went on to an eight-point win in the second set. In the third, the Longhorns shook off the Pioneers after a pancake dig by 6-foot-3 middle blocker Asjia O'Neal prevented Sacred Heart from a 7-6 lead. Fields and Brionne Butler finished off that rally with a combination block, and the Longhorns led for the rest of the match-clinching set.

Texas setter Jhenna Gabriel congratulates teammates after a point in Thursday's first round NCAA Tournament win over Sacred Heart at Gregory Gym. Gabriel finished with 30 assists.

For the match, Texas hit .443. The 44 kills were split between five players, all of whom hit at least .320. Setter Jhenna Gabriel paced the Texas offense with her 30 assists. 

"We've got some special athletes that have worked really hard to get their offensive game going and making good decisions up there," UT coach Jerritt Elliott said. "Going into a match, probably my least concern is our offense.

"For me, how clean we can play is the big thing. What I look at is our errors, and we just had too many tonight. We'll have to clean that up for tomorrow night and get them focused and ready to play tomorrow."

Texas in the NCAA volleyball tournament: Schedule, how to watch, and a bracket for predictions

Texas will return to Gregory Gym on Friday night for a rematch with Rice. The Owls (20-6) bested San Diego (20-8) in three sets in their tournament opener.

All-time, UT has won 37 of the 39 matches it has played against the Owls. Rice's two victories in the series, though, were recorded during the previous two seasons.

"We believe in ourselves completely," said Rice outside hitter Nicole Lennon, who had a team-high 15 kills against San Diego. "We know that when we play at our highest level, we can do anything we set our minds to. Whoever we play, we're gonna come out and play Rice volleyball, we know that for sure."

Back on Sept. 22, Texas swept Rice in a match that was played in Houston. Nearly three months later, Elliott predicted the Owls will "play better than they did in September."

"We know this Rice team's a great team," Phillips said. "We played them in September and we did what we needed to do then. We need to do the same thing whenever we go out and play them tomorrow."

Notes: Sacred Heart was led by Jasmine Rogers' 12 kills. ... Eggleston also served two aces. Her six blocks tied with O'Neal for the team-high total. ... Texas is now 34-0 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. ... Texas announced a crowd of 3,172 for the match.