Sky's the limit: Behind Skylar Fields, Texas sweeps Rice and returns to NCAA's Sweet 16
Skylar Fields doesn't lack a personality.
Last year, the Texas volleyball player once appeared on a Zoom call with local reporters with a virtual constellation background. She plays while wearing a bright pink headband. After most UT points, it's hard to find anyone more expressive and energetic than Fields, to whom teammate Logan Eggleston advised "keep doing you."
But while Fields' personality is loud, her play in the NCAA Tournament so far has been even louder.
Fields' 18 kills led Texas to a 25-21, 25-23, 25-19 sweep of Rice in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday. The victory inside a sold-out Gregory Gym advances the No. 2-seeded Longhorns (26-1) to the Sweet 16 for the 16th straight year.
"Every game could be your last game," said Fields, a junior 6-2 opposite hitter. "So I'm trying to go out there and play with my best and I think my teammates give me a good opportunity giving me the ball and I do what I can do."
In Friday's opening set, Fields paced Texas with six kills. And then later she shut the door on the visiting Owls (20-7).
After not leading once through the first two sets, Rice held a 16-14 advantage in the third. The Longhorns and Owls then exchanged blows to a 17-17 tie. It was the final tie of the night, thanks to Fields.
Swinging from her customary spot on the left side of the court, Fields had kills that gave Texas its 18th, 20th, 21st, 22nd and match-clinching 25th points.
"We were going point-for-point and I think that once we found a little bit of room, we took it and ran with it," Fields said. "We knew that they were going to battle with us. We didn't really get frazzled, we try to take one play at a time and win the game."
In addition to her 18 kills, Fields hit .432. Dating back to last year's tournament, she has had at least a dozen kills in five of UT's seven postseason matches. She has hit over .400 in four of those.
- Wright State (April 15, 2021): 5 kills, .267 hitting percentage
- Penn State (April 18, 2021): 21 kills, .500 hitting percentage
- Nebraska (April 19, 2021): 18 kills, .630 hitting percentage
- Wisconsin (April 22, 2021): 12 kills, .211 hitting percentage
- Kentucky (April 24, 2021): 16 kills, .278 hitting percentage
- Sacred Heart (Dec. 2, 2021): 11 kills, .476 hitting percentage
- Rice (Dec. 3, 2021): 18 kills, .432 hitting percentage
Said Texas coach Jerritt Elliott: "She likes playing in the NCAA Tournament and jumps a little bit higher."
While the night belonged to Fields, the second set spotlight was grabbed by Molly Phillips, an outside hitter who had five kills on seven swings. On one rally in which an Eggleston kill put Texas up 17-10, Phillips saved a teammate's wayward pass and then thwarted a Rice kill attempt at the net.
Elliott referred to the versatile Phillips as "the silent assassin." When asked if Phillips deserved a first-team designation on the Big 12's all-conference team instead of the second-team nod that she received, Elliott didn't hesitate to answer in the affirmative.
"She's a really great player that maybe is underestimated at times or maybe not as recognized as some of the other All-Americans on their team," Rice coach Genny Volpe said of Phillips. "I have a lot of respect for her."
Phillips finished with 11 kills and a .556 hitting percentage. Texas also received 12 kills and 17 digs from Eggleston. As a team, Texas hit a season-high .490. That was enough to offset a Rice team that itself hit an impressive .340. No team had hit better than .300 against Texas before Friday.
"It was a battle of some big arms and big offense," Elliott said.
Texas has earned the right to host third- and fourth-round matches next week. The Longhorns will next play either Hawaii or No. 15 Washington, who will battle on Saturday for a trip to Austin.
Notes: Rice was led by Nicole Lennon's nine kills. Rice setter Carly Graham, whom Elliott said "keeps you off-balance all night long," announced in a postgame press conference that she would return for a fifth season. ... Texas setter Jhenna Gabriel had 41 assists and a career-high four aces. ... Texas announced a crowd of 4,322, which was the 13th-largest in Gregory Gym history.