MINNEAPOLIS — Creighton volleyball player Leah McNary is adept at rising.
Her vertical jump, measured at more than 30 inches, helped transform her raw talent as a freshman into a team leader in kills as a sophomore this season.
She flourished throughout the 21st-ranked Bluejays' 25-22, 25-23, 28-26 sweep of Marquette (27-7) in Friday's first-round NCAA tournament match, leading all players with 14 kills and slamming down the clinching point in all three games.
“It's a moment I live for,” said McNary, who leads Creighton (29-3) with 365 kills. “I like being put under pressure where I know it's really crucial for me to put the ball down at that point.”
Bluejays coach Kirsten Bernthal Booth said McNary's performance, while strong, ranks among the many in a scrapbook that has gotten thicker this season.
“Leah played a great match, but Leah's been playing like this,” Booth said. “This wasn't an anomaly we saw tonight.”
Next up for the Bluejays is a match at 6 p.m. Saturday against 11th-ranked Minnesota, which advanced by sweeping Liberty.
McNary stood out among several precocious Bluejays youngsters against Marquette. Friday's starting lineup consisted of two seniors, three sophomores and two freshmen.
“We've got a lot of youth, but our youth is used to winning,” Booth said. “They are not going to freak out; they are not going to tip. I love when Leah says at 25-25, 'Give me the ball.' That's a dream for a coach to hear.”
McNary contributed points throughout the match and got better in the late stages. After closing game one with the last of her three kills, McNary made several more clutch plays in game two. Three of her seven kills were the Bluejays' final three points of the game.
“She is someone I definitely rely on to carry a lot of the load, and every time she comes up and answers,” senior setter Megan Bober said.
While McNary impressed with her springs for legs, powerful swings and precision placement, teammates Kelli Browning and Michelle Sicner made quieter but consistent contributions.
Browning was perfect on all five kill attempts in game one, a welcome start for a player eager to break a recent slump. Her 12 kills Friday were good for second among Bluejays, and she made no attack errors. Sicner added seven kills, including one that set up the deciding point of the match.
“Browning had carried a lot of the load most of the season, but she struggled the last two weeks,” Booth said. “She was really keying on getting her mojo back this week, and she came up and had a great match.”
Despite her team's 2-0 lead, Booth reminded players they hadn't accomplished anything. The warning did not prevent the Bluejays from early stumbles in the third game. Marquette jumped to a 7-3 lead, but Creighton recovered soon after. The Bluejays' ability to come back ebbed away Marquette's focus and confidence.
“They were very good at staying stable,” Marquette junior Julie Jeziorowski said. “Sure, they let us in at some points, but once they got a lead, they were very good at maintaining it and fighting for it. It was like trying to break through a wall that we couldn't break through no matter how hard we tried.”
Marquette battled back behind standouts Holly Mertens and Danielle Carlson, the Golden Eagles' leaders in kills all season.
“We were really concerned about Mertens and Carlson, and they both had great matches,” Booth said. “Our key was trying to not let them get the ball too much, but it seemed like Carlson was getting kills at will.”
The teams were tied at 23 in game three when Marquette positioned itself for the first of its three game points. But an attack error, a Creighton block by Bober and Browning and a service error knotted the score each time.
“We created opportunities for ourselves and just didn't take advantage,” Marquette coach Bond Shymansky said. “Some of that's us, and some of that's Creighton.”
On the other end, Booth had faith that her team would prevail. The Bluejays won a trio of five-game matches on the road earlier in November.
“this team has been in a lot of tough situations,” Booth said. “people came up with big kills.”
The Bluejays closed the match with kills from Sicner and, of course, McNary.
“(McNary) was a great player,” said Mertens, who finished with 13 kills. “We definitely scouted her, and she was doing things we weren't totally ready for. She was swinging away at the ball, and we didn't have an answer.”
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• Video: Creighton postgame press conference:
• Video: See the final point of the match: