The NCAA Division I women’s volleyball tournament begins Thursday with 12 of the 32 first-round matches. The remaining 20 are on Friday, when Thursday’s first-round winners face off as well.

Action begins at 4:45 p.m. Eastern when Bowling Green plays Western Kentucky at Kentucky. Later, Kentucky faces Loyola Chicago.

At 5 p.m. Georgia Tech plays Wright State at Marquette, where later Marquette plays Ball State.

Two more matches start at 5:30. Rice plays Colorado at Baylor, followed by Baylor vs. Stephen F. Austin, and Miami plays Kansas at Nebraska, followed by Nebraska vs. Delaware State.

At 6 p.m., Towson plays Georgia at Texas and then the No. 21 Longhorns play Fairleigh Dickinson.

The last site of the day starts at 8 p.m. Eastern when Washington State plays UNLV at San Diego before the host team plays Northern Colorado.

We have a breakdown of each of those matches, plus a list of Friday’s first-round matches. But first some TV info and extra information about how to watch.

TV/STREAMING

(AND IT’S NOT ABC, ESPN, ESPN2 OR ESPNU): Every one of the 32 first-round and 16 second-round matches can been seen, but only on ESPN+. We have the links in our VolleyballMag.com TV & Streaming Listings. One of the first-round matches, Fairleigh Dickinson at Texas, can also be seen on the Longhorn Network. 

Announcers? The host schools choose their own. 

That means that if you get a top-16 seed you not only play at home, you get to hire who you want to do the broadcast at your site. In many cases, that includes former coaches at the school, local volleyball afficionados or friends of the program, including area club coaches/directors whose clubs have players on the roster.

New to ESPN’s volleyball coverage this year is a “whiparound” studio show called The 5th Set. It features host Sam Gore, the iconic Paul Sunderland and Jennifer Hoffman. It, too, is on ESPN+ and may keep hard-cores from having four devices running at once the next three days.

Understand this: By ESPN showing all matches on ESPN+ it means that there are no first- or second-round matches on ABC or its cable outlets ESPN, ESPN2 or ESPNU. 

Last March, for example, the NCAA Tournament women’s basketball play-in game between Incarnate Word and Howard was on ESPNU. Howard’s first-round game at South Carolina, at 2 p.m. on Friday, March 18, was on ESPN. 

For what it’s worth, there is a women’s pre-conference basketball game between Notre Dame and Maryland on ESPN2 — the same network that will show the NCAA women’s volleyball title match on December 17 — at 5:30 p.m. Eastern Thursday. Another women’s basketball game follows.

And at 5:30 Thursday on ESPNU, the site of all four NCAA volleyball regional finals, is boys high school basketball. No, really. Boys high school basketball.

There are, according to various internet sources, about 23 million ESPN+ subscribers. Even if you have cable or another service that includes ESPN, ESPN+ costs extra, $9.99/month or $99.99 annually. 

Or, as it says in the Western Kentucky preview of its match, “All NCAA Tournament matches will be available on ESPN+, for fans who elect to subscribe.”

Thursday’s first-round matches

AT KENTUCKY

Bowling Green (22-9) vs. Western Kentucky (28-3): Both teams are from towns called Bowling Green. Bowling Green won the Mid-American Conference East Division and beat Ball State in five in the MAC final. Bowling Green and 11th-year Danijela Tomic rely on a balanced offense that includes Petra Indrova (322 kills), Lauren Hovey (315) and Katelyn Meyer (247). The Falcons held opponents to a .176 hitting percentage.

But when you get into percentages, few fare better than WKU, which tied with Rice for the Conference USA title and lost to the Owls in a tough five in the C-USA final. WKU hits .320, second only to Texas (.337) in the NCAA. The Hilltoppers are surgical on offense, led by Lauren Matthews (448 kills, 4.27/set, .414) and  Paige Briggs (396 kills, 3.77/set, 331). Katie Isenbarger, who has 162 kills, leads with 124 blocks, 32 solo. Matthews has 114 blocks, 19 solo. Teams hit .179 against WKU, which lost this season only to Louisville. Texas A&M and Rice.

The celebration was on when Bowling Green beat Ball State for the MAC title/Mallory Hiser, BGSU Athletics

Kentucky (20-7) vs. Loyola Chicago (25-8): Kentucky tied Florida for the SEC title and relies on a balanced attack that includes five players with 154 or more kills. The leader is Reagan Rutherford (361 kills, 3.88/set, .341). If she doesn’t get you, Adanna Rollins (285 kills) or Azhani Tealer (212 kills, 103 blocks) will. Kentucky, the No. 3 seed in the Stanford region, leads the NCAA in kills per set (14.77) and is led by one of the nation’s top setters in Emma Grome (12.03 assists/set). 

Loyola Chicago moved from the Missouri Valley and dominated the Atlantic 10, finishing 17-1 in conference play. The Ramblers personify offense balance with eight players recording 100 or more kills. Karlie McNabb (31 kills) and teammates will have to play a perfect match, however, to win in Lexington. 

AT MARQUETTE

Georgia Tech (20-7) vs. Wright State (28-3): Georgia Tech, the third-place team in the ACC behind Louisville and Pittsburgh, has Julia Bergmann, a 6-foot-5 outside who can carry a team like few players can in this tournament. Bergmann has 515 kills and is third in the NCAA at 5.31/set. GT gets effective production from Erin Moss (207 kills, 101 blocks), Tamara Otene (201 kills) and Breland Morrisette (175 kills, 102 blocks, but it’s all about Bergmann.  

Wright State owned the Horizon League this season, where it went 18-0 and then won the tournament, and is riding a 23-match winning streak. In addition to slowing Bergmann as best they can, the Huskies have to hope their balanced offense is effective. Sam Ott has 322 kills, Taylor Bransfield 320, Callie Martin 296 and Megan Alders 268. 

Marquettte (27-3) vs. Ball State (24-8): If you’re looking for a darkhorse to go really far in this tournament, look at Marquette. The Golden Eagles, sixth in the NCAA in hitting percentage (.293) have come in under the radar, losing only to Wisconsin and twice to Creighton, the second time in the Big East final 16-25, 25-20, 25-18, 31-33, 15-12. Aubrey Hamilton leads with 358 kills, Jenna Reitsma has 279, Carsen Murray 235 (while hitting .442, third in the NCAA to go with a team-high 112 blocks) and Ella Foti 233. Yadhira Anchante is an underrated setter and Marquette plays fierce defense.

Ball State, the MAC West and overall regular-season winner, lost to Bowling Green in the MAC final. The Cardinals upset Michigan in last year’s first round. Marie Plitt leads with 327 kills and four others have 236 or more. Lauren Gilliand has 92 blocks, 17 solo, and Maggie Huber averages 4.61 digs. Ball State is fifth nationall at 17.6 digs/set.

AT BAYLOR

Rice (26-3) vs. Colorado (20-10): We profiled Rice and setter Carly Graham on Wednesday. Read that story to learn all about the Conference USA champions who are back in the NCAA Tournament for the fifth year in a row.

Colorado finished tied with Washington for fifth in the Pac-12 at 12-8. The Buffs have been up and down since starting the season 8-2 in pre-conference. They’ve never won more than three in a row and had a tough mid-season three-match skid. Maya Tabron leads a balanced attack with 353 kills, Lexi Hadrych has 341, and Meegan Hart has 272 while hitting .432, eighth in the NCAA. She also leads with 135 blocks and junior middle Alexia Kuehl has 121.

Baylor (23-6) vs. Stephen F. Austin (26-4): Baylor has exceeded expectations and then some. We profiled Baylor just two weeks ago. Read all about the Bears, who have done an incredible job of reloading, here. SFA left the Southland Conference, which it dominated seemingly forever. It took just into the second year of being in the WAC to figure it out. SFA beat Utah Valley in the WAC Championship to claim the league’s bid. Ielan Bradley leads with 362 kills, one of six players with 122 or more. Izabella Ortiz has 109 blocks, 19 solo, and Haley Hoang averages 5.09 digs, 18th in the NCAA.

AT NEBRASKA

Miami (19-10) vs. Kansas (18-10): On paper, this should be one of the fiercest first-round matches. Miami, an at-large from the ACC, has played tough all season but has only one big victory — over Georgia Tech — to show for it. Angela Grieve leads with 411 kills and four others have 153 or more. Setter Savannah Vach is outstanding and Janie Leao has 138 blocks, 16 solo.

Kansas, an at-large from the Big 12, got everyone’s attention by taking a two-set lead over Texas in the conference opener before losing in five. Of its 10 losses, four are to Texas and Baylor and two others were to teams in the tournament, UCF and UNLV. Ayah Elnady leds with 283 kills and 38 aces. Lauren Dooley (168 kills) has 115 blocks, 16 solo. 

Nebraska (24-5) vs. Delaware State (24-6): This is one of those expected first-round mismatches. Nebraska is the No. 2 seed in the region; Delware State, making its first NCAA appearance, has an RPI of 195. Nebraska, dealing with injuries, looks to get on track after losing its last two Big Ten matches and three of five. Six Huskers have 135 or more kills, 314 by Madi Kubik, who is also second in digs with 234. Kaitlyn Horn has a whopping 150 blocks and is fourth in the NCAA with 1.55/set.

Delaware State, which won the MEAC, is led by Alondra Maldonado, who has 313 kills, hits. 349 and has 80 blocks. Delaware State is third in the nation with 242 aces, 52 by Karen Cordero.

AT TEXAS

Towson (29-1) vs. Georgia (22-7): We profiled CAA-champion Towson earlier this week. Read all about the Tigers, who have won 11 in a row. Georgia, an at-large from the SEC, is back in the tournament for the first time since 2019 and had its most regular-season victories since 2013. The Georgia offense revolves around Kacie Evans, who has 450 kills, averages 4.09/set, has 45 aces and has 78 blocks. Sophie Fisher (313 kills) is third in the NCAA with 173 blocks, 12 solo, 1.56/set. Georgia is 19th in the NCAA with 203 aces. Georgia has not won a postseason match since 1995.

Texas (22-1) vs. Fairleigh Dickinson (17-15): FDU gets to play in what will be a sold-out Gregory Gym and can only hope to stave off the offensive tidal wave that is Texas. The top-seeded Longhorns are second in the NCAA in assists per set (13.76), fourth in kills (14.63) and leads in hitting percentage (.337). You know about Logan Eggleston, Madisen Skinner and Asjia O’Neal, but consider that Molly Phillips is fourth in kills with 155, hits .395, and is third in blocks with 48. That’s just a statement on the depth of Texas, which includes setter Saige Ka’aha’aina-Torres and libero Zoe Fleck.

NEC-champion FDU, 244 in the RPI, has Italian Tatijana Fucka, be careful how you say it, who has 230 kiill and 97 blocks, 22 solo. 

AT SAN DIEGO

Washington State (22-9) vs. UNLV (26-4): Few teams, match in and match in, are historically as competitive as Washington State. No one ever wants to play the Cougars. This year’s team took a while to get going — WSU was 8-4 after losing its Pac-12 opener to Washington — and has won five of six, including a sweep of Washington as the bookend to the regular season. Laura Jansen leads with 390 kills, Pia Timmer has 381 and Magda Jehlarova has 274 and is seventh in the nation with 168 blocks, 29 solo. Argentina Ung stepped in as setter and averages 10.11 assists.

UNLV was a runaway regular-season winner of the Mountain West, but the Rebels — who had won 17 in a row — got upset in the MWC Championship by Utah State. Isabel Martin leads with 425 kills and Gabrielle Arretche-Ramos has 392.

San Diego (27-1) vs. Northern Colorado (22-8): We profiled the “Why not us?” Toreros last week as they made their case to be a top-four seed. They weren’t, getting the No. 5 spot. They have won 24 in a row. Read all about San Diego here.

Northern Colorado came on strong the last two thirds of the season and overpowered the Big Sky by winning 16 of its last 17 matches. That included winning all three matches in the Big Sky tourney. The Bears have a balanced attack led by Kailey Jo Ince (396 kills) and Makenzie Harris (336). Cece Huhn has 114 blocks, 26 solo. 

Friday’s first-round matches

All times Eastern
Purdue vs. Tennessee, 4 p.m.
BYU vs. James Madison, 4 p.m.
Houston vs. South Dakota, 4:30 p.m.
Iowa State vs. FGCU, 4:30 p.m.
Southern California vs. High Point, 5 p.m.
UCF vs. Yale, 5 p.m.
Washington vs. TCU, 5:30 p.m.
Florida State vs. UNI, 5:30 p.m.
Louisville vs. Samford, 7 p.m.
Pittsburgh vs. Colgate, 7 p.m.
Arkansas vs. Utah State, 7 p.m.
Florida vs. Florida A&M, 7 p.m.
Ohio State vs. Tennessee State, 7:30 p.m.
Hawaii vs. LSU, 7:30 p.m.
Creighton vs. Auburn, 7:30 p.m.
Penn State vs. UMBC, 7:30 p.m.
Wisconsin vs. Quinnipiac,, 8 p.m.
Minnesota vs. Southeastern LA, 8 p.m.
Stanford vs. Pepperdine, 10 p.m.
Oregon vs. Loyola Marymount, 10 p.m.

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