The rematch final four?
The Kevin Hambly invitational?
Another shot at a first title for Illinois or BYU?
Stanford breathing easier?
You could call it, too, a gathering of the national player-of-the-year candidates, because either Nebraska’s Mikaela Foecke, Jordyn Poulter of Illinois, Stanford’s Kathryn Plummer or BYU’s Roni Jones-Perry will ultimately take that honor.
What a Saturday.
When it was all said and done, the NCAA Division I Women’s Volleyball Championship national semifinals were set for Thursday night at the Target Center in Minneapolis:
Stanford (32-1) vs. BYU (31-1) at 7 p.m. Eastern on ESPN.
And then Illinois (32-3) vs. Nebraska (28-6), also on ESPN, which is foolishly listed for a 9 p.m. start, but that never happens. Especially not after what we expect from those two.
Illinois beat Wisconsin in four to get things going Saturday and then Nebraska swept Oregon.
This Big Ten season they played twice. Nebraska won in four at Illinois on September 29, and then Illinois returned the favor in Lincoln, winning in four on October 27.
BYU swept Texas on Saturday and then Stanford — after losing the first set and in serious danger late in the second — rallied to beat Penn State in four.
BYU dealt Stanford its only defeat, a five-set outcome August 31 in Provo.
“I think that loss has been in the back of everybody’s mind,” Stanford’s Plummer admitted.
You really couldn’t ask for more, unless you’re Minnesota, which was hoping to play at home this week, but the Gophers were knocked off by Oregon in Friday’s regional semifinals.
And perhaps lost in the shuffle, Iowa State beat UNLV on Saturday and Tulane beat Charleston and they’ll play for the NIVC title on Tuesday. Results follow.
First the NCAA Tournament and how it went down on Saturday as four matches in a row, all on ESPNU, unfolded:
Illinois 3, Wisconsin 1: Illinois is back in the national semifinals for the first time since 2011 when the Illini — coached by Hambly — lost to UCLA in the national-championship match.
“It’s a pretty indescribable feeling,” said Illinois senior middle Ali Bastianelli. “You can’t explain it until it happens to you.”
Illinois and Wisconsin split their Big Ten matches, winning on each other’s home court. This time, third-seeded Illinois prevailed at home 25-19, 15-25, 25-22, 25-23, ending sixth-seeded Wisconsin’s season 25-7.
“Somebody has to win and somebody has to lose.,” said Wisconsin coach Kelly Sheffield, whose team hit .338. “There is talent on both sides. We out-hit them two of the four sets, and they out-hit us two out of the four sets. Blocks were almost identical. You let it play out, these two teams could play each other 10 more times and they would all probably be like that.”
Jacqueline Quade was magnificent for Illinois, which won its 17th match in a row, finishing with 25 kills while hitting .379. She had three errors in 58 swings and added an ace, seven digs and two blocks.
All-time Illinois blocks leader Bastianelli had seven more, three solo, as well as 11 kills, hitting .318, and a dig. Beth Prince had nine kills, including a big-time kill to end the match. Ashlyn Fleming had six kills, an assist, an ace and four blocks, and Poulter had three kills, 51 assists, an ace, four digs and two blocks.
Hambly was the coach who recruited this veteran Illinois team, but it failed to make the NCAA Tournament in 2016. Then he left for Stanford and Chris Tamas, an assistant at Nebraska, took over.
“This moment was a lot of work in the making,” Tamas said. “I’m really proud of these guys.”
“Chris has come in and changed us,” Bastianelli said. “We’re so grateful for the coaching staff. The past two years, we haven’t changed the big stuff, it’s the little things we didn’t think about before.”
Dana Rettke ended her outstanding season with 21 kills while hitting .515 for Wisconsin. She had five blocks. Senior Tionna Williams had 13 kills, hit .400, and had an assist and four blocks, one solo. Molly Haggerty had 13 kills, nine digs and two blocks, and setter Sydney Hilley had a kill, 55 assists, 11 digs and a block.
“I think it’s really hard to see positives right now because our dream was to go to the final four,” Hilley said. “To be that close and to think about all the things you could have done, it’s hard to see any positives, but there are so many. I think as a team, we were totally transformed from the beginning of the season to the end.”
Nebraska 3, Oregon 0: Nebraska, which won the 2015 and 2017 NCAA titles, is back in the national semifinals for the fourth year in a row after its 25-22, 25-23, 25-17 victory.
“I thought this was a really, really good win,” Nebraska coach John Cook said. “We were not very sharp, but Oregon is a really good team offensively and they were hitting huge numbers against us till the end there and I was impressed with their team and offense.”
Foecke led the Huskers with 16 kills, hitting .400 after having two errors in 35 swings. She had 13 digs and two blocks. Lauren Stivrins had 11 kills with one error in 19 swings and hit .526 to go with four blocks. And Lexi Sun had 10 kills, five digs and a block. Setter Nicklin Hames had 41 assists, 15 digs and a kill, and Kenzie Maloney had 12 digs and three assists.
“(Seniors) Mikaela and Kenzie continue to raise a very high bar at Nebraska with four straight final-four appearances now,” Cook said. “It is hard to put into words how hard that is and how hard it is to get to this point.”
Cook, whose team won its 12th match in a row, pointed out that Foecke’s and Maloney’s November-December record in their careers is 51-2.
Nebraska noted that Cook is just the fifth coach in NCAA history to make nine NCAA semifinal appearances at one school, joining Andy Banachowski (UCLA, retired), Russ Rose (Penn State), Don Shaw (Stanford, retired) and Dave Shoji (Hawaii, retired). Cook has won four NCAA titles with the Huskers, in 2000, 2006, 2015 and last year.
Oregon (23-11) had four players with seven or more kills, led by Ronika Stone’s nine. Taylor Borup and Willow Johnson had eight each and Lindsey Vander Weide had seven. Oregon, which hit .250, had just one ace — by Vander Weide — and two total blocks. Libero Brooke Nuneviller had 19 digs and five assists and setter August Raskie had five kills in eight errorless attacks, 33 assists and five digs.
“Overall, it was a really important season for our program, a really important season for our seniors.” Oregon coach Matt Ulmer said. “I wanted them to have a great send-off year and I feel like they are ready to be professionals in whatever they decide to do. We are really going to miss the five of them, they have been amazing to be around and we love them.
“We are hungry to get back to this point.”
BYU 3, Texas 0: There was debate about the seeding, that Texas should have been No. 4 and BYU No. 5, so this match would have been in Austin, where Texas has a huge home-court advantage.
But BYU certainly thrived while playing in its sold-out, rocking Smith Fieldhouse as the Cougars came away with a 25-23, 25-23, 25-21 victory.
It put BYU back into the national semifinals for the first time since 2014 when the Cougars knocked off Texas and then lost to Penn State in the title match. The BYU coach at the time was Shawn Olmstead, now the BYU men’s coach. He was replaced by his sister, Heather, who now has a four-year record of 118-12, with, she hopes, two more matches to play this week.
BYU senior outside Jones-Perry was dominant Saturday before a crowd of 5,326. She finished with 25 kills, 11 in the second set. Jones-Perry, who hit .367, had an assist, an ace, three digs and two blocks.
“I think it shows that we are a fighting team and that we are resilient,” Jones-Perry said of closing out the match. “We do a good job at staying in the present and having the next-ball focus and focusing on what we wanted to do on that next touch. When we are good at that then the score doesn’t matter and we can go play our best.”
Heather Gneiting had nine kills, a dig and four blocks, Madelyn Robinson had seven kills, two digs and a block, and Lacy Haddock had five kills and a block. Setter Lyndie Haddock-Eppich had a kill, 43 assists, four dig and three blocks, and libero Mary Lake had 17 digs and four assists.
“For us, we got eight blocks, but it didn’t matter. We sided out at 63 percent and that was good enough to win the match tonight,” Heather Olmstead said. “Lyndie did a great job at spreading the offense around and getting the hitters involved. It wasn’t our best offensive match, but it was good enough.
“Roni was fantastic — 25 kills on 49 swings, it just doesn’t get better than that. Mary was back there defending as much as she could and patrolling that backline, so those are all big deals for us. Everybody did their job on our team and it was a fantastic team effort and we are super proud of our team.”
Texas saw its season end 23-5. In the first set, the Longhorns led 18-15, the second set was tied 19-19, and in the third led 21-20 before BYU scored the last four points, ending in on back-to-back kills by Jones-Perry.
Logan Eggleston led with 15 kills while hitting .323 to go with an ace, two digs and two blocks. Yaazie Bedart-Ghani had seven kills, three digs and eight blocks, Micaya White had six kills, an ace, seven digs and five blocks, and Brionne Butler had five kills, hit .400, and had nine blocks. Morgan Johnson had one kill but nine blocks and setter Jhenna Gabriel had 31 assists, an ace, a dig and two blocks.
Stanford 3, Penn State 1: The Nittany Lions (26-8) came out and took it to Stanford from the get-go, but late in the second set of Stanford’s 18-25, 25-23, 25-20, 25-16 victory, Plummer busted out. Plummer, who had three of her 23 kills in the first set, had nine in the second, six after Stanford trailed 20-17. She had kills for three of Stanford’s last four points in the set.
“After losing the first set we had to re-set our mentality,” Plummer said. “We knew we could do better and hang with them. We just didn’t do it in the first set. I think all of us knew it.”
It was Plummer’s kill that ended the match as she hit .383 with five errors in 47 swings to go with an ace, 10 digs and three blocks, one solo.
“I thought it was a heavyweight slugfest,” Hambly said. “Kind of what we thought it would be. And to be totally honest, for the first set until about 20-16 in the second set, I thought they were in complete control.
“It took a lot of will and determination to turn that.”
Meghan McClure had 12 kills, hit .321, and had an ace, 14 digs and three blocks. Audriana Fitzmorris had 10 kills, a dig and three blocks, one solo, and Tami Alade had eight kills, hit .500, and had a dig and six blocks. Holly Campbell had six kills and six blocks, libero Morgan Hentz had 18 digs and four assists, and setter Jenna Gray had 52 assists, three aces, three digs and five blocks.
“I think the first set and into the second we were playing not to lose,” Gray said. “And we started playing to win, which changed everything. We stopped playing scared and started playing like ourselves.”
Stanford, which has won 30 in a row and is in its 22nd national semifinals, had five aces, but 14 errors. The Cardinal hit .326, while Penn State hit .204.
“Once we got control we did a great job of not giving it back,” Hambly said.
Stanford is in the national semifinals for the third year in a row. The Cardinal won it all in 2016 under coach John Dunning, who retired after the season, and the loss in the semifinals to Florida last year, Hambly’s first.
Stanford swept Penn State when the Nittany Lions went to Palo Alto in early September.
“They’re a really good team and you can tell they like playing with each other,” Penn State coach Russ Rose said.
Senior Nia Reed led Penn State (26-8) with 12 kills and four blocks, one solo. Freshman Jonni Parker had 11 kills, eight digs and two blocks, one solo.
“It sucks the way we sent them out,” Parker said. “I apologize for that.”
Taylor Leath, who transferred this season from North Carolina for her final year, added 10 kills, eight digs and a block.
Senior setter Bryanna Weiskircher had a kill, 42 assists, an ace, eight digs and three blocks.
“In the second game we had a few windows where we showed a little youth and a little hesitancy in some areas,” said Rose, who completed his 40th year. “Stanford’s a little too comfortable in their environment for that.
“I think a lot of the players were a little discouraged after the second game and probably discouraged with my conversation after the second game. The two things run parallel.
“There is always a fine line between being in control and being mature and being able to handle the responsibilities of being a player and a leader and I thought a couple of kids made some really bad decisions that kind of impacted the team and it went the wrong direction.
“Stanford is 32-1 for a reason. For sure we played better than the first time. I left the first time more optimistic than right now.”
Iowa State, Tulane into NIVC final: Iowa State (20-13) will play host to Tulane (29-8) at 7:30 Eastern Tuesday.
Iowa State beat visiting UNLV (22-12) 31-29, 25-19, 13-25, 26-24 as Jess Schaben had 24 kills, three assists, 13 digs and two blocks. Eleanor Holthaus had nine kills, two assists, five digs and three blocks, and setter Piper Mauck had five kills in seven errorless swings to hit .714. She had 41 assists, nine digs and five blocks.
Thea Sweder led a balanced UNLV attack with 11 kills, hitting .375. Mariena Hayden had 10 kills, a whopping eight aces, 18 digs and two blocks, one solo.
Tulane beat visiting Charleston (24-12) 20-25, 25-19, 25-22, 25-17. Lexie Douglas led the Green Wave with 14 kills. She hit .542 after making one error in 24 swings. Dayna Kern had 13 kills, four digs and six blocks, one solo, to go with an ace. And Kayla Dinkins had 11 kills with one error in 15 swings to hit .667. She had four blocks.
Charleston’s Rachel Devon had 17 kills, six digs and a block. Lauren Freed added 13 kills, two aces, 10 digs and a block.