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Missouri’s NCAA Tournament regional is filled with familiar foes.

The Tigers’ first round game will be a rematch with Northern Iowa, a team Missouri defeated in four sets Sept. 13. Barring one of the biggest upsets in NCAA volleyball history, the Tigers should then take on the team with the most wins in NCAA volleyball history: No. 5 Nebraska. The Cornhuskers knocked Missouri out in the second round of the NCAA Tournament last season, but this season, the Tigers have the offensive firepower to make a run.

However, Missouri’s run will have to start against Northern Iowa. The Panthers are not a team to overlook. Northern Iowa has lost just twice since Sept. 22

Northern Iowa sat at No. 40 in RPI, but its best win was against No. 78 Illinois State, against whom the Panthers went just 1-2. Nevertheless, Northern Iowa earned a spot in the NCAA Tournament for the fifth straight season.

The Panthers are led by their four First Team All-MVC honorees: Karlie Taylor, Rachel Koop, Kate Busswitz and Kaylissa Arndorfer.

Taylor ranks 18th in the country with 4.60 kills per set, recording 557 total kills in 2019. Taylor is the only player in Northern Iowa history to record multiple 500 kill seasons. In her matchup with Missouri on Sept. 13, the Tigers did a good job handling Taylor. The Panthers leading scorer was held to just 12 kills on a lowly .100 hitting, as Missouri’s defense forced her into 11 total errors.

Koop ranks 13th in the country with 11.44 assists per set. That number places Koop just behind Missouri’s Andrea Fuentes, who averages 11.84 assists per set. Koop ranks 8th in Northern Iowa program history with 2,966 career assists.

Busswitz and Arndorfer are the second and third leading scorers for the Panthers, but the duo was held to just 10 total kills on a combined .159 hitting during their loss to the Tigers earlier this season.

In that match, Missouri’s offense was able to expose the Northern Iowa defense all day long. Kylie Deberg, Leketor Member-Meneh and Tyanna Omazic all finished with double-digit kills, as the Tigers finished the match with more kills and a higher hitting percentage.

Another strong trend in the match was Missouri’s ability to be aggressive at the net. Middle blockers Kayla Caffey and Omazic were able to combine for six total blocks, seven more than the entire Northern Iowa team. Missouri finished the day with 12 blocks.

If the Tigers are to defeat the Panthers again, the offense will have to flow through All-SEC members Deberg and Omazic. Deberg, who leads the SEC in total kills, kills per set, total points and points per set, had a match-high 18 kills in Missouri’s win over Northern Iowa. Omazic, who finished third in the SEC in hitting percentage, hit .450 on 11 kills in the team’s first meeting.

The Tigers clinched their fifth straight tournament appearance and 16th all-time when they were selected as an at-large bid Sunday. Missouri’s five straight appearances rank second-most all time in program history, bested only by eight straight from 2000-07.

The Tigers’ first round match will begin at 4:30 p.m. Friday inside the Devaney Center in Lincoln, Nebraska. The match will broadcast live on BTNPlus.com.

With a win, Missouri would face the winner of No. 5 Nebraska and Ball State.

Nebraska leads the all-time series against Missouri 72-3-1. The Cornhuskers defeated the Tigers in straight sets during last season’s NCAA Tournament. It was the teams’ first meeting since 2010, but now the former Big 12 rivals will have the chance to battle for the second straight season.

Nebraska ranks first all time in wins with 1,308 and third all time in winning percentage (.842). Its five national championships rank behind just Penn State and Stanford as the most in the country. If the Tigers do meet the Cornhuskers in the second round, they will try to put a dent in Nebraska’s 24-2 NCAA Tournament second round record.

However, Missouri has also been on a tournament run of its own. The Tigers have won five straight first round matchups, advancing to the Sweet 16 twice in that process. Missouri’s 21-7 record was its fifth straight season with 20-plus wins, the longest such streak in school history.

If the Tigers do match up against the Cornhuskers in the second round, they will have to overcome one of the best home-gym advantages in sports. Nebraska currently holds the longest sellout streak in college volleyball at 270 matches. Before 2013, the Cornhuskers played in the Nebraska Coliseum where they compiled a 481-31 (.939) all-time record. In 2013, Nebraska moved to the Devaney Center. Since then, the Cornhuskers have gone 20-2 as hosts of NCAA Tournament matches.

Despite the numbers, Taylor believes in his team. He just hopes his players do as well.

This article originally ran on columbiamissourian.com.

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