Hello, Columbus: Stanford joins Nebraska, Minnesota, Texas in NCAA semis

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Stanford's Ivana Vanjak attacks against-Wisconsin's Lauryn Gills, left, and Tionna Williams/Wisconsin photo

That was a Friday and Saturday to remember.

Welcome to Columbus, No. 1 Nebraska, No. 2 Minnesota, No. 4 Texas and No. 6 Stanford.

Two from the Big Ten, one from the Pac-12 and one from the Big 12.

Certainly Thursday’s NCAA Division I Volleyball Championship semifinals should be worth the price of admission:

We’ve got a re-match of last year’s title tilt as defending-champion Nebraska plays Texas, and Minnesota faces Stanford.

How they got there was something else.

Start with Nebraska simply steamrolling Pac-12 champion Washington, holding the Huskies to a total of 47 points in three games.

And then Stanford went toe-to-toe with Wisconsin, a team ranked No. 1 at various times this season in both the AVCA Division I Poll and NCAA RPI.

Texas swept Creighton, which became the great story of the tournament, before Minnesota did the same to UCLA.

In all three of the four regional final matches were sweeps, but they were anything but boring. And all that a day after three of the final eight matches went five — as Nebraska, Wisconsin and Texas all came back from the brink of elimination — and three others went four.

Now it’s on to Columbus and Minnesota freshman Alexis Hart is likely speaking for us all.

“I’m excited,” Hart said. “I can’t wait.

Andie Malloy of Nebraska goes to stop Washington's Bailey Tanner
Andie Malloy of Nebraska goes up to stop Washington’s Bailey Tanner/Nebraska photo

Nebraska 3, Washington 0

This one was almost not to be believed. The conversation between ESPNU announcers Paul Sunderland and Karch Kiraly questioned if Nebraska would be tired after having to come back to beat Penn State in five, a match in which the Huskers were down 0-2 in sets and 22-24 in the third.

This just in: Nebraska was not tired.

Nebraska crushed No. 8-seeded Washington 25-16, 25-10, 25-21, holding the Huskies to .088 hitting. Consider that junior Crissy Jones led UW with nine kills. Pac-12 player of the year Courtney Schwan had seven kills and hit .036.

On the other side, Nebraska was all over it. Four players had three or more blocks and the Huskers hit .437.

“Really, really pleased with how we came out tonight,” said Nebraska coach John Cook whose team improved to 31-2 and 18-1 at home. “Yesterday was a very, very tough match, and to get through that, sometimes you’re going to get almost like a second wind in confidence … I thought we played at a really high level tonight and never let Washington really get comfortable in the Devaney or in the match. Just a really, really impressive effort by this group and what a way for our seniors to play their last match in Devaney.”

One of them, outside hitter Andie Malloy, the transfer from Baylor, led with 15 kills and hit .500 and was giddy about moving on.

“It means a lot. I’m so excited,” Malloy said. “I’m so blessed to be a part of this team, and just the experience that these girls have, just being there and being in the tournament and going to the final four. I love my teammates and I’m just thankful to be here.”

Senior right side Kadie Rolfzen had 10 kills, hit .368, had seven digs and three blocks. Twin sister Amber had five kills, but no errors in six swings to hit .833, and the middle had four blocks. Mikaela Foecke, the sophomore outside who was MVP of last year’s NCAA Championship, had nine kills, six digs and two aces.

“This group is trying to do what’s never been done before,” Cook said.

“(We won) in 2000, and we came back and went to the final four in 2001, and (we won) in 2006, we didn’t make it (in 2007), so this is our next shot to get out.

“It’s a hard thing to do, and we’re trying now, we’ve got one goal left to make history here.”

Second-year Washington coach Keegan Cook and his team were left looking for answers that weren’t there.

“Outstanding environment tonight. It’s exactly what you hope for your kids to play in a regional round,” said the other Cook, whose team finished 29-5. “Tough match obviously for us.

“I thought Nebraska executed extremely well right out of the gate on both sides of the ball and hit assignment after assignment. We were a little slow out of the gate and it continued into the second set. They played well and there’s not much you can do about that except for weather the storm. I’m very proud of our performance in the third set, being able to come back and play a competitive set.”

Added Jones, “We came in expecting them to play well. We had some ruts but they just played well in all aspects of their game. They had a great match.”

This was the third consecutive year and fifth time in six years that Nebraska has eliminated UW from the NCAA Tournament. The good news for Washington is it loses just one senior and she didn’t play.

Stanford's Inky Ajanaku hits against Wisconsin's Tionna Williams, left, and Molly Haggerty/Wisconsin photo
Stanford’s Inky Ajanaku hits against Wisconsin’s Tionna Williams, left, and Molly Haggerty/Wisconsin photo

Stanford 3, Wisconsin 2

The Cardinal faced an 0-2 deficit and then rode on the back of senior Inky Ajanaku to a 18-25, 24-26, 25-21, 25-21, 15-9 victory that stunned the home crowd and put Stanford back into the semifinals for the second time in three years.

“At the end of the second set, the look in our eyes is we were all a little flabbergasted,” said Ajanaku, a fifth-year player surrounded almost completely by freshmen on the court.

“After the second set, we went back into the third and I looked in everybody’s eyes and I saw like they were ready. They were ready to be there all night and they were ready to fight. And that’s just having confidence in yourselves, and I think our freshmen are finally getting that and they are recognizing how good we all know that they are.

“And being able to play to your potential, just pushing out all the doubt, that’s what changed. And it’s something that takes a lot of maturity, and we were having to do it really early, and I’m really proud of them for doing that.”

Ajanaku, the regional MVP, had a season-high 20 kills, hit .447, and had a career-high 11 blocks.

Junior right side Merete Lutz added 12 kills, hit .321, and had three blocks.

And those newbies? Freshman outside Kathryn Plummer added 12 kills — including the match-ender — and 10 digs. Freshman middle Audriana Fitzmorris had 10 kills, hit .333, and had six blocks, three solo. And another freshman, setter Jenna Gray, tied her career-high with 57 assists and had six blocks, one solo.

“Wisconsin is really, really a great team, so for us to be sitting here is an honor,” Stanford coach John Dunning said. 

“I thought our team played really hard tonight and played with courage when they had to. We hadn’t been down two sets and come back and won a match this year. And I think we knew that coming out for the third set that maybe we’d learned enough and that we were ready for the fight that was ahead of us, and we were. I’m very proud of them.”

Wisconsin saw its season end 28-5 and had to say goodbye to two of the best players the program has ever known in senior setter Lauren Carlini and middle Haleigh Nelson.

“It’s hard to lose a match like that,” Wisconsin coach Kelly Sheffield said. “It’s hard to be this close to a dream and fall short.

“We were on the other side of it 24 hours ago (when Wisconsin rallied to beat Ohio State in five) and we’re on this side of it tonight. I thought it was two teams really fighting hard.

“I thought both teams were playing, laying it all out there on the court and battling and fighting, and we came up on the short end. But I’m proud of the journey this team took. I’m proud of how far we’ve come, proud of the fight, and proud of the class that they’ve shown throughout as well.”

Nelson and junior outside Lauryn Gillis led the Badgers with 15 kills apiece. Nelson hit .560 and had four blocks, one solo. Sophomore middle Tionna Williams added 11 kills but hit .071. She had five blocks. And freshman outside Molly Haggerty could never get in the groove. She had eight kills and hit .121 to go with 15 digs.

“I thought it was just two teams for two-and-a-half hours that were just laying it all out there. And sometimes it was easy for both teams to score in a very high clip and then there was other times that it was really, really tough to score because both teams were just putting so much effort out there,” Sheffield said. “But I’m not sure if it was a, you know, necessarily what we were doing. They made a couple of nice adjustments and I thought their serving really picked up at the break.”

Carlini had seven kills, hit .357, had 57 assists and three blocks.

“I’m trying to accept the fact that we’ve played our last match in a Wisconsin jersey and as a part of this Wisconsin program,” Carlini said. “So I don’t think it’s really sunk in yet. I can’t believe it’s over. But I am so proud of what this team has done over the years and, as Coach said, the journey that we’ve been on and I’m glad to have been part of this senior class.”

Texas celebrates its victory over Creighton/UT photo
Texas celebrates its victory over Creighton/UT photo

Texas 3, Creighton 0

Creighton, which beat Northern Iowa in five, upset No. 5 Kansas on its home court in five and then dispatched 12th-seeded Michigan, also in five on Friday, became the darling of the tournament.

“What a special run they had, a very well-coached team, and some special athletes,” Texas coach Jerritt Elliott said.

The Big East champs had the nation’s longest winning streak, 23 matches, but playing big, strong Texas at Texas is one tough task.

The Longhorns cruised 25-19, 25-20, 25-11 and are back in the semifinals for the fifth year in a row. They improved to 27-4, while Creighton’s season ended 29-8.

Big right side Ebony Nwanebu, the junior who played in just one match last year after transferring from USC, led Texas with 13 kills, hit .619 and had two blocks. Freshman outside Micaya White added 12 kills and hit .458.

Creighton’s Jaali Winters was basically held in check as she led her team with 11 kills and hit .152. Marysa Wilkinson and Taryn Kloth added seven kills apiece for the Bluejays, who had just 34 kills total.

“They run a really complicated offense. They have players moving around everywhere. So we train to be able to move our servers around. And so we really pinpointed Winters and eliminated her ability to hit second tempos in those situations,” Elliott said.

“We had to kind of pin to players and double commit on Wilkinson, and we were able to kind of take away some of their primary swings. So our servers had a lot to do with it. We put a ton of pressure on them and got them out of assists.

“And I thought our left side blockers and our middle started getting in front of them and just started getting good touches. We just put a lot of pressure on them.”

Creighton, the other team from Nebraska, made it to the round of 16 last year. Clearly coach Kirsten Bernthal Booth has put the Bluejays on the volleyball map.

“Well, obviously we’re disappointed. We came in with the expectation to win, and that’s always hard,” Bernthal Booth said. “I have to really credit Texas. I thought they played a phenomenal match. We knew that they were a fantastic team and we’d need to be really our best effort. And I thought they made us really uncomfortable and led to some uncharacteristic things with our team that I credit them by putting pressure on us.

“You know, I thought their outside really dominated and did some things that were different from what we’ve seen as far as where they were hitting. They kind of hit all over the court, that made them tough to defend. We had to win the serve-and-pass game, and I thought we lost it tonight.

“But losing stinks. It stings. But what this team has done this year and how they’ve done it may be what makes me even prouder.”

Creighton has only three seniors and one who starts in middle Lauren Smith.

Minnesota libero Dalianliz Rosado makes a big save against UCLA/Minnesota photo
Minnesota libero Dalianliz Rosado makes a big save against UCLA/Minnesota photo

Minnesota 3, UCLA 0

The scores were 25-23, 25-20, 25-22 but that doesn’t really show just how tough No. 10-seeded UCLA played the Gophers, who improved to 29-4 and 17-0 at home.

“It was a very challenging match tonight,” Minnesota coach Hugh McCutcheon said. “I was extremely proud of our athletes for the way they responded to the different style of play we got to see from UCLA. A lot of great defense from them and a lot of defensive discipline on their part. We were still able to find ways to close out these sets. Very proud and we’ll enjoy it. As you know it’s on to the next one.”

Big Ten player of the year Sarah Wilhite led the Gophers with 15 kills and the senior outside added eight digs. Hart had 11 kills and the Tapp twins, Paige and Hannah, added seven kills each on a night when their team hit just .229.

“They’re ranked No. 1 in the country for a reason,” UCLA coach Michael Sealy said. “To beat a team at that level on a night like tonight, you’ve got to have a ton of heart and you have to execute. I think we had the heart, but we didn’t execute well enough to stay in the match.”

Minnesota had to rally all match long. The Gophers were down 5-0 in the first set, trailed early in the second and was tied a number of times in the third, the last at 20-20.

“For me, sometimes those leads are a false sense of security,” said Sealy, whose Bruins ended their season 30-7. “Volleyball is a game of runs. When you have an eight-point cushion and it’s down to four, all of the sudden it’s like, ‘Oh my goodness, half of it’s gone.’

“I think they did a great job of slowly coming back. It’s not like they went on an eight-point run. It was two points and a side-out. One point and a side-out. So in the course of three or four rotations, that eight turned into a two-point lead. They’re a good team.”

His was led by outsides Jordan Anderson and Reily Buechler, who were superb in the postseason. Anderson had 16 kills and hit .448. Buechler had 13 kills and 12 digs.

UCLA takes some big graduation hits, losing Anderson, Pac-12 libero of the year Taylor Formico, and middles Claire Felix and Jennie Frager.

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