Final four reflects best of season
It's the most intense day of the college volleyball season. Four regional finals mean four teams get to celebrate trips to the final four, while four others lament having come so close.
And "so close" was the story for Saturday's first and last matches of the NCAA tournament. Washington advanced and will play in its own backyard in Seattle, but it took an amazing comeback from the Huskies for that to be the case.
If you didn't stay awake, you missed an epic match: The Huskies rallied from a 2-0 deficit to beat Southern Cal 3-2. Washington prevailed 17-15 in a heart-pounding fifth set that saw the No. 3 Huskies stave off two match points and advance to play second-seeded Penn State at KeyArena on Thursday. The other semifinal pairs defending NCAA champion and top seed Texas against No. 12 seed Wisconsin.
The final four reflects the best of this regular season: It will have the champions of the Big 12, Big Ten and Pac-12. Wisconsin, which finished tied for fourth in the Big Ten, joins Penn State in representing the conference that had seven teams advance to the Sweet 16.
All in all, you couldn't beat the drama that started and ended the regional final action, with two tense, five-set matches involving four powerhouse programs. It began Saturday afternoon in Lexington, Ky., as five-time NCAA champion Penn State won 15-11 in the fifth set against six-time champ Stanford.
By the time play ended in the Los Angeles Regional, it was after 2 ET Sunday morning. Washington has been aiming toward this final four since the event was awarded to Seattle, but the Huskies had to beat No. 6 seed USC on the Trojans' home court -- and do it after losing the first two sets 28-26 and 25-23.
It was a match with two fantastic individual performances. Pac-12 player of the year Krista Vansant had 38 kills and 30 digs. USC's Ebony Nwanebu, the league's freshman of the year, had 30 kills and no errors on 53 attacks.
Vansant's kill with Washington trailing 14-13 in the fifth set was a season-saver for the Huskies. Then the Trojans had another chance to win at 15-14, but a hitting error tied the match.
Two kills by Huskies senior Gabbi Parker sealed the comeback, giving Washington its first trip to the final four since 2006.
"It wasn't pretty all the time, but the intangibles were there," Washington's Jim McLaughlin said. "As a coach, I can't say enough about these guys. The heart, the commitment -- all of those things that are really important."
If their regional final felt like a national championship battle for the Huskies, so will their next match against Penn State in the NCAA semifinals.
Saturday, the Nittany Lions' seniors -- who won the NCAA title as freshmen in 2010 -- seemed to find that proverbial higher gear when it was most needed, especially in the fifth set against Stanford. Penn State's Deja McClendon finished with 21 kills and 16 digs, while Ariel Scott had 22 and eight. Katie Slay had nine kills and her season high in blocks with 10.
"I thought Katie Slay's performance tonight was exceptional," said Penn State coach Russ Rose -- which, if you know Rose, is about as close as you'll ever hear him come to "gushing" about one of his players.
Slay was the ultimate difference-maker. At crunch time, Penn State's block was just too much for Stanford.
You have to feel for the Cardinal, which finished second in the Pac-12 this year with a mostly young squad that should be in the NCAA championship hunt next year.
But this is a loss that stings, as Stanford says goodbye to seniors Carly Wopat and Rachel Williams, who combined for 28 kills Saturday.
"As a coach, what you want is people to be able to enjoy the things that they worked so hard for," Stanford coach John Dunning said. "And when you get to here and you can't [get further], it's tough.
"Then I think you have to take a look at all that is built, and the people who are in the process. And be happy for them, because of all the things they have learned about themselves and about friends and teammates."
Badgers beat Boilers
The Nittany Lions will have another Big Ten team with them in Seattle; that was assured Friday when No. 12 seed Wisconsin and unseeded Purdue won in the regional semifinals to set up an all-Big Ten final in the Champaign, Ill., regional.
The Badgers won that matchup against the Boilermakers 3-1 Saturday and advanced to the final four for the first time since 2000 and only the second time in program history.
"I think it's awesome just for the older girls," said Wisconsin setter Lauren Carlini, who was the Big Ten freshman of the year. "You go from not making the tournament [in 2012] to the Final Four. It just shows how much of a transformation everyone has made in that one year. It's magical right now, so crazy."
The Badgers did not have to beat a seeded team to make it to the final four. The No. 4 (Missouri) and No. 5 (Florida) seeds in their region were eliminated in the second round, and No. 13 seed Illinois went out in the region semifinals.
No offense to Wisconsin -- which played very well Saturday, led by Deme Morales' 20 kills and 13 digs -- but the Boilermakers did a lot of the "heavy lifting," if you will, in this region. Purdue took out Missouri on the Tigers' home court, and then beat Illinois on the Illini's home court. Yet the Boilermakers still fell short of making the program's first final four.
"It's always tough to lose when you've got a group of seniors that have done everything they could possibly do to make our program better," said Purdue coach Dave Shondell, whose team has lost twice in the regional finals and twice in the regional semis in the last four seasons. "Wisconsin just served us off the floor tonight."
Texas sweeps Big Red
Now the Badgers have the tall task of trying to derail Texas from repeating as champion.
Saturday, the Longhorns sent a sold-out arena full of 8,343 Huskers fans home unhappy with a dominant 3-0 victory in Lincoln, Neb. The atmosphere not only didn't bother the Longhorns, it bolstered them. Texas started the match in control, and never really let Nebraska get the momentum. The meeting of former Big 12 rivals was a showcase for the Longhorns.
The news Saturday that football coach Mack Brown was stepping down at Texas was just another motivator for the volleyball squad, which really didn't seem to need much motivating. Brown was well-known for being an accessible, friendly aid to other coaches at Texas, including visiting with volleyball recruits to help convince them that Austin was the right place to go.
Texas volleyball coach Jerritt Elliott told his team that they could honor Brown with another trip to the final four, and they delivered in a big way.
The young Huskers, who were second to Penn State in the Big Ten and the No. 8 seed in the NCAA tournament, battled Texas to a 3-2 loss earlier this season in Austin, Texas. But Saturday's match wasn't nearly that close.
Led by Haley Eckerman and Bailey Webster, who combined for 26 kills and just three errors, Texas advanced into the final four with a full head of steam.
"Especially with this being a rival from the past, it was a great environment for us to be placed in," Eckerman said. "To know that no matter what type of environment we're in … we can play really well together and just trust ourselves."