Ducks face uphill climb in Huskers' backyard
OMAHA, Neb. -- The thought was it could be a grudge match, the volleyball equivalent of a prize fight. Instead, Nebraska won in a knockout.
In the NCAA regional semifinals here in their backyard Friday, the No. 4 seed Huskers swept No. 13 Washington 25-14, 25-21, 25-23. It puts the Huskers one match away from the program's 12th Final Four appearance.
Standing in the way is a team that has never advanced that far but still presents a formidable obstacle: No. 5 seed Oregon. The Ducks were the opening act here at the CenturyLink Center, winning their match against No. 12 seed BYU, 3-1.
The Ducks finished second in the Pac-12 this season; the Huskers tied for second in the Big Ten. Even though Friday's regional semifinals here didn't end up being high drama, Saturday's final very well might.
Nebraska versus Oregon will be the second of the four regional finals to be televised Saturday on ESPNU; it's scheduled to air at approximately 6:30 p.m. ET. The winners move on to the Final Four in Louisville on Dec. 13-15.
"Oregon has done some great things this year," Nebraska coach John Cook said of the Ducks, who are 28-4. "They are a great pass-set-kill team. They've got three hitters that can really terminate. You look at how many kills they had tonight. They don't necessarily win by blocking defense, like Washington relies on."
The Ducks had 73 kills, led by Liz Brenner's 26. Oregon's Alaina Bergsma, who was Pac-12 player of the year, had 17.
Meanwhile, Nebraska was led by 14 kills from senior outside hitter Gina Mancuso, playing in her hometown of Omaha. But they also got a tremendous defensive match from senior Hannah Werth, who had 22 digs to go along with her nine kills.
"Hannah did a great job of back-row defense," Mancuso said. "Coming from a hitter, when someone digs a ball that I just nailed, it really takes away [momentum] from a hitter. It puts doubts in their mind."
The Huskers and Huskies had met three previous times in the NCAA tournament: in the 2005 national championship match (Washington won), the 2008 regional final (Nebraska won) and the 2010 Sweet 16 (Washington won). The latter included a contested call that factored into a postmatch altercation between Cook and his Washington counterpart, Jim McLaughlin.
The Huskers were extremely disappointed by that loss and even more crushed to lose to Kansas State on their home court in Lincoln, Neb., last year in the NCAA second round. So Friday's victory felt like a catharsis of sorts for Nebraska.
"Oh, I know I felt it," Mancuso said. "For those of us who were there in 2010, that feeling was still there. We had a lot of motivation to come out and beat Washington. I think our energy level was there, and our confidence. I think revenge played into that."
But that won't be a factor Saturday. Nebraska and Oregon have no familiarity with each other. The last time the Huskers and Ducks met in volleyball -- 1986 -- none of the current players were even born.
"They're very, very different teams," said McLaughlin, whose Huskies split in their two meetings with Oregon in the Pac-12 this year." One runs a lot of motion offense; one is pretty direct. Both dig the ball fairly well. I think it's going to come down to the serve and pass. … And, of course, how Oregon handles the environment will be key."
McLaughlin thought his team was knocked off-kilter a bit by the crowd of nearly 9,000, most of them dressed in Huskers red. For Nebraska's senior class, Saturday's final is like coming full circle: Nebraska lost a five-setter in the 2009 regional final here against Texas, when the current seniors were freshmen. Now, they have a chance to put a better ending on their last appearance at Nebraska's "home away from home."
"It is special being here in Omaha, we're all really looking forward to [Saturday]," Mancuso said. "It's going to be electric."
West Lafayette, Ind.
No. 1 Penn State vs. No. 8 Minnesota (4 p.m. ET, ESPNU)
The regional host school, Purdue, was eliminated by Minnesota 3-1 on Friday, while Penn State swept Kentucky. That sets up an all-Big Ten final between the league champion Nittany Lions and the Gophers, who finished tied for second in the conference.
In the regular season, Penn State beat Minnesota twice: 3-0 in Minneapolis on Sept. 29 and 3-1 in University Park, Pa., on Nov. 2.
Penn State has won four of the past five NCAA titles.
No. 3 Texas vs. No. 6 USC (9 p.m. ET, ESPNU)
Neither team had much trouble in the semifinals Friday. Regional host Texas swept Florida, while USC did the same to Wichita State.
Now, Trojans coach Mick Haley goes against a Texas squad he previously coached for 16 seasons (1980-96). It was under Haley that the Longhorns won their only NCAA title in women's volleyball, in 1988.
The Trojans are looking to make their seventh Final Four appearance since Haley took over their program in 2001. Texas, under coach Jerritt Elliott, has made the Final Four three of the past four years.
No. 2 Stanford vs. Michigan (11:30 p.m. ET, ESPNU)
There's only one unseeded team left in the tournament: the Wolverines, who swept their rivalry match with Michigan State in Friday's semifinals. Now comes a very tall order: Pac-12 champion Stanford, which swept Iowa State in the other semi.
Michigan will be trying to advance to the Final Four for the first time; Stanford has won more NCAA titles than any program, with six. But the last Cardinal championship was in 2004.