Texas, Nebraska to meet in NCAA Tournament title tilt

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By Greg Echlin for DestinationVolleyball.com On a night when the Star Wars theme played in CenturyLink Arena before the first serve, the force—and one that could be seen—was with third-seeded Texas in a four-set victory (26-24, 27-25, 23-25, 25-21) over No. 2 Minnesota. The Longhorns (30-2) notched their first 30-win season since 1993. “I think it was a very high level match,” said Longhorns coach Jerritt Elliott.  “I think both teams played extremely steady.” As expected, Horns senior Amy Neal got the most swings with 67 and paced them with 25 kills, but the Horns, well-seasoned as the only team with experience in the national semis and physically imposing at the net, gave Neal plenty of help. In particular, Yaazie Bedart-Ghani, a 6-foot-4 freshman from Redondo Union HS in Los Angeles, had perhaps the finest match of her career.  Her hitting percentage (.583) was the best of anyone on the floor as she compiled 15 kills.  Paulina Prieto Cerame, a junior from San Juan, P.R., was second on the team in kills with 19. “I’ve just been building each game and each practice,” said Bedart-Ghani.  “I have such a great support group here.  They really push you to be the best that you can be.  Going out there and working hard every day with them has probably made so much of a difference in my game.” When asked about being prepared for what Bedart-Ghani brought to the table, Golden Gophers coach Hugh McCutcheon responded, “She was phenomenal.  It’s a little different rhythm and we didn’t really adjust to it.” It was only the second loss for the Gophers in their last 21 matches since Sept. 30.  At that time the Gophers rebounded from their road loss at Penn State with a victory against Northwestern.  They went from missing the NCAA tournament last year—the first time since 1998—to leapfrogging to the national semis this year.  Along the way the Gophers won their first Big Ten title since 2002 and set a school record for consecutive wins (15) in the Big Ten. “Sad that it has come to an end,” said McCutcheon.  “It’s been a great group and a great journey.” This was the first meeting between each other since September 2012, the season in which Texas won its last national championship..  The Horns also defeated the Gophers in the 2009 national semifinal, the Gophers’ last trip to the semis before this year.  The Horn are hoping 2012 repeats itself.   This year, like three years ago, they never left the UT campus on the first two weekends and won the championship on a neutral floor (Louisville). Horns middle blocker Chiaka Ogbogu left the match with cramps, but is expected to be ready for the title match. Ogbogu, the Austin regional MVP after 28 kills (3.11 per set) and a .469 hitting percentage, had nine kills in 18 attempts. The Horns grabbed their first lead of the match, 11-10, on a service ace by Nicole Dalton.  Two service aces in the opening set couldn’t have been more timely.  Kat Brooks delivered the other ace on set point for the 26-24 first-set victory.  Before Brooks’ ace, Paulino Prieto Cerame delivered three straight kills of her four in the set to position the Horns for the win. In the second set, Chloe Collins, a junior setter from Cypress, Tex., who tied a career high with 16 digs, came up with the big point with a throwdown for a 26-25 Longhorn lead.  The Longhorns won the second set that featured 17 ties when Sarah Wilhite’s cross-court attack went long.  Through two sets, the Horns hitting percentage sat at .315. But the Horns hitting percentage dropped when they hit .222 in the third set when the Gophers won, 25-23. The third set turned in the Gophers direction when Daly Santana had back-to-back kills that tied the set, 20-20, and fueled a Gopher surge down the stretch.  Hannah Tapp got the set point with a soft touch over the Longhorn frontline. But a Texas got off to a quick 4-1 start in the fourth set and clinched the match on a kill by Neal.

Nebraska takes out Kansas

Nebraska’s record against Kansas after the second semi of the night: 87-0-1. The Jayhawks were asked about it in Lawrence before their departure to Omaha, greeted with it before their semi and will continue to be asked about it down the road. Especially if they play against each down the road  as Jayhawks coach Ray Bechard hopes, and not necessarily in the NCAA tournament. But as dominating as the record appears, the Huskers had their hands full in their four-set victory (25-20, 25-21, 20-25, 25-16) over the Jayhawks. “I think we got them in the first game because of the crowd, the atmosphere and everything, but, man, they (the Jayhawks) started playing really well,” said Huskers coach John Cook.  “I was really impressed.  They were a lot better in person than they were on tape last week.” Seven service errors in the first two sets hurt the Jayhawks.  Plus KU’s passing that kept its offense predictable and led to a .159 hitting percentage for the match. “Our serving has been up and down all year, but our passing has been pretty solid,” said Bechard.  “Those two things put us in a bit of a hold in the first two sets.” When KU eliminated the service errors in the third set, KU won.  But in the fourth set, the same ol’ nemesis struck again.  A service error by Ainise Havili destroyed all the steam the Jayhawks had built on her kill just a moments before on the preceding point. Havili’s service error gave the Huskers a 9-8 lead they held onto to win the match. Though downtrodden by the season-ending loss Havili, selected this week as an AVCA First Team All-American setter, was upbeat about what KU accomplished. “It’s been an unforgettable journey,” said Havili.  “I’m really proud of every single person on this team. We got better every day in practice.  We got better with every team we played.  This sucks and everybody hates this feeling, but that comes withy this sport.  We’re going to work hard and come back next year.” The only time the NCAA record crowd of 17,551, mainly dressed in red, became quiet was after Tianna Dockery came up with a block that sealed the third set.  KU enjoyed its biggest lead of the match in that set when the Jayhawks built a 23-18 lead on a kill by Havili. On dealing with the partisan Husker crowd, Bechard said, “You’ve got to adapt to that.  We try to put pressure on them each day in practice, but we don’t have 17,000 people dressed in red in our gym.” When looking at KU’s final record, Bechard was practical. The Jayhawks’ three losses (two against Texas and the semifinal loss against Nebraska) came against the two teams playing for the national championship. The photo of Texas is courtesy of Texas athletics.

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