What a night! 2 upsets later, Texas to play Stanford for NCAA title

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Stanford celebrates its NCAA Division I Volleyball Championship victory over Minnesota/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

COLUMBUS, Ohio — ESPN and the volleyball world got what they hoped for.

The first time that the NCAA Division I Volleyball Championship was broadcast on the network’s main channel gave the Worldwide Leader everything that makes for great TV, from fierce competition, remarkable athleticism and long rallies in front of a huge crowd of 16,670, and, in the end, a couple of upsets.

Stanford and Texas are moving on and play for the NCAA title at 9 p.m. Eastern Saturday back on ESPN2, while No. 1 Nebraska and No. 2 Minnesota have left the building. Stanford is trying to win its first title since 2004, while Texas last won it all in 2012.

Nebraska, ranked No. 1, 2 or 3 all season, was simply stampeded by the Longhorns.

The best team all season was no match for fourth-seeded Texas as the Longhorns — in a rematch of last year’s NCAA-championship match — came away with a stunning sweep 25-18, 25-23, 25-21.

Earlier Thursday night, Stanford’s remarkable run continued as the sixth-seeded Cardinal knocked off Minnesota 26-24, 25-19, 22-25, 25-22.

“We had a lot of self-confidence as a team going into it,” Texas coach Jerritt Elliott said. “I’ve been to a lot of final fours and this is the calmest I’ve been going into it. I just had a feeling with this group that they would perform at a high level tonight.

“And they proved that.”

Texas, runner up in the Big 12, improved to 27-4, while Nebraska, which won the Big Ten, ended its season 31-3. Nebraska swept Texas in last year’s NCAA title match and then swept the Longhorns in August in the second match of this season.

Stanford, which completely overhauled its lineup in October and finished second in the Pac-12, improved to 26-7. Minnesota of the Big Ten ended its season 29-5.

“I thought we were tough,” Stanford coach John Dunning said. “People have been talking about our freshmen all week, about whether they’re going to play like freshmen or not.  And what I say is, yeah, they played like freshmen.  They’re really good. They’re poised for freshmen, and they can handle it and they’re continuing to learn and handle it better.

“Looking forward to Saturday.  I mean this is unbelievable stuff.”

What’s more, both winning teams overcame losing key players early. Texas lost sophomore middle Chiaka Ogbogu, the 2015 Big 12 freshman of the year, who was declared academically ineligible before the season began. Stanford then lost All-American sophomore outside Hayley Hodson to an injury and the VolleyballMag.com 2015 national freshman of the year subsequently took a medical leave from school.

Stanford's Jenna Gray (left) and Kelsey Humphreys (right) go for the ball as Audriana Fitzmorris gets out of the way. Julie Chan,VBshots.com
Stanford’s Jenna Gray (left) and Kelsey Humphreys (right) go for the ball as Audriana Fitzmorris gets out of the way. Julie Chan,VBshots.com

Senior middle Inky Ajanaku and freshman outside Kathryn Plummer led Stanford with 15 kills apiece. Ajanaku had nine blocks, one solo, while Plummer had five blocks, one solo, and 12 digs.

The two teams met in August at Stanford and the Cardinal won in four. But Stanford at one point was 10-5 overall, 4-3 in the Pac-12, before Dunning made some major lineup changes.

But even last weekend Stanford was down 0-2 at Wisconsin in the regional final. Since then, however, the Cardinal has been hitting on all cylinders, winning that match in five and then upsetting Minnesota on the big stage.

“You know, I played with a lot of great players, a lot of great different teams,” Ajanaku said. “Every experience playing for Stanford, with Stanford on your shirt, is incredible. And the talent on this team being able to play with everyone is amazing. And the heart in their eyes is something that is really rare in volleyball, when everyone seems like they’re on the same page working for the same goal.

“And I’ve only seen it, that amount, in everybody’s eyes a handful of times of the teams I’ve been on and it’s really special. It inspired me.”

Big Ten player of the year Sarah Wilhite had a monster match for the Gophers as the senior outside led with 25 kills — 10 in the first set — and 13 digs. Freshman outside Alexis Hart added 11 kills.

“Stanford is a great blocking team. They played great out there. They played hard. I just think as hitters we really had to mix up our offense and our shots to kind of combat the tall block,” Wilhite said.

“But kudos to them. They played well, and they’re definitely a tough team to hit against.”

“Down at the end of that fourth set we made some great stuffs that they covered. Balls that were going straight down; they stuck out an arm popped up, good for them,” Minnesota coach Hugh McCutcheon said.

“But as they say, right, in this job you’ve got to be good. You’ve got to be lucky. And you’ve got to stay healthy. I’m not saying it was luck for Stanford. But it’s just a play here and a play there, things might have been different, especially when you get to this point in the season and we’re talking about two sets.”

Texas players celebrate a stuff block (from left, Micaya White, Morgan Johnson, Autumn Rounsaville, Ebony Nwanebu/Ed Chan, VBshots.com
Texas players celebrate a stuff block (from left, Micaya White, Morgan Johnson, Autumn Rounsaville, Ebony Nwanebu/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

Texas was led by junior right side Ebony Nwanebu, who played in just one match in 2015, a season-opening win over Nebraska. But then she missed the rest of the season. Thursday night Nwanebu had 15 kills with just one error and hit .378.

“Texas deserves a lot of credit,” Nebraska coach John Cook said. “They played really well. We just couldn’t get in a rhythm and put enough pressure on them.  So they certainly deserved to win.

“When you make eight hitting errors in a three-game winning match that’s a great night. So they played really well and deserved a 3-0 victory.”

Senior outside Paulina Prieto Cerame added 12 kills for Texas, making its fifth consecutive final-four appearance.

Nebraska got 13 kills from sophomore Mikaela Foecke, who was MVP of last year’s title match. She hit .333. Junior Briana Holman had nine kills.

“I think they just took control of the match from the start,” Nebraska setter Kelly Hunter said. “And it was pretty hard for us to get it back.”

Justine Wong-Orantes makes a save for Nebraska/Ed Chan, VBshots.com
Justine Wong-Orantes makes gets one of her 11 digs for Nebraska/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

Senior libero Justine Wong-Orantes had 11 digs in the match to end her tremendous career as Nebraska’s all-time digs leader with (1,890). Wong-Orantes also ended her career with 296 digs in the NCAA Tournament, the most in school history.

“I think we were just really pressing tonight. And then once we sensed that Texas was playing really well, and we were having a hard time stopping them, I mean, I think, we’re the best defensive team in the country,” Cook said. “And we let them hit .321 tonight. So just when we couldn’t stop them, it just forced — we started pressing a little bit trying harder and that’s why you saw those types of plays. I saw stuff I haven’t seen all year tonight.

“But that’s what happens in a match like this sometimes. And, of course, we’ve seen it happen to other teams. But again Texas deserves a lot of credit.”

And in the end, ESPN got two great matches on what could turn out to a pivotal TV night for volleyball.

“I love volleyball,” Dunning said. “And when I started 42 years ago coaching volleyball, it wasn’t like this.  The first final four I went to wasn’t like this.  It’s grown and grown and grown.

“And the people that are involved in volleyball for a long time know it’s just an amazing, elegant, fast, athletic, strategy-based sport.  And the more people get exposed to it the more they’ll love it.

“Having the sport rise up over the years and, I think, taking a big jump right now is huge for volleyball and all the people that can experience this amazing thing. It’s such a small court with so many people close together, you have to be so good with one another that close together. The ball travels 70 miles an hour. It’s so fast.

“How could you not love the game? And how many more people are going to love it?  I’m excited.  It’s just going to explode now, I think.”

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