Texas outlasts Michigan to reach championship
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Texas coach Jerritt Elliott held up a blank piece of paper, asking everyone to imagine it as a court. He said he was offering up a little "Volleyball 101" lesson.
Suffice to say, his subsequent X's and O's explanation likely would qualify as a bit more advanced than most spectators' version of just "101." But the point he made was crystal clear: the No. 3 seed Longhorns constantly had to adjust throughout their match to escape unseeded Michigan.
Which Texas did, in thrilling fashion by winning 3-2 in the teams' national semifinal matchup Thursday at the KFC Yum! Center.
"I don't know what the difference was," Texas outside hitter Bailey Webster said. "But I know in the second and third sets, we weren't in our comfort zone."
Elliott then explained that, through some changes in serving strategy, the Longhorns were able to neutralize the Michigan middle blockers in the first, fourth and fifth sets, which Texas won. But it took some time for the Longhorns to figure out the most effective placement of the serves.
"They cover a lot of balls and make you earn it," Elliott said of the Wolverines, who were playing in their program's first final four. "We were able to serve them short or pin their middle sometimes and get them a little bit more predictable."
For most of this tournament, Michigan defied predictions. The Wolverines became just the second unseeded team to make the women's volleyball final four.
And Thursday, Michigan was also trying to reverse a statistical trend that it previously did in its regional-final victory against No. 2 seed Stanford last weekend. Coming into the final four, teams that won the first set in this NCAA tournament ended up winning their matches 77 percent of the time.
That wasn't the case, though, when the Wolverines lost their first set against Stanford, as Michigan came back for a 3-1 victory. Thursday, the Wolverines got down 1-0 again after getting blitzed 25-11. But it looked for a while as if they were going to once again rally for an upset.
Michigan won the second set, 25-21, taking advantage of some crucial errors from the Longhorns. Then the Wolverines maintained their momentum with a 25-23 victory in the third set.
Fans of the Longhorns started to sweat. The Big 12 champions had lost just one match in league play: a five-setter at Iowa State in the regular-season finale. And Texas had surrendered just one set in its four NCAA tournament wins. Now, though, the Longhorns were a set away from elimination.
But just like that, the switch flipped back in Texas' favor again. An athletic team with multiple scoring threats, the Longhorns didn't have the nervous look of playing for their season's survival in the fourth set. Rather, they brought out their bulldozer persona again, winning 25-12 to push the match to the limit.
And here's the mental-background aspect of all this for Texas. The last time the Longhorns were in the final four, in 2010, they were dismissed so quickly their fans barely had time to settle in their seats. That national semifinal loss to eventual champ Penn State had a couple of caveats, though: Setter Hannah Allison had been dealing with an ankle injury during her freshman season, and Webster was sitting out the year with a knee injury.
You could legitimately say Texas overachieved that year just to make the final four; still, it stung the Longhorns to be beaten so soundly in the semis.
"That's a huge obstacle we had to overcome," Allison acknowledged. "That mentally beat us up. It was hard to regroup from that because of the way that that match went down.
"I think a lot of it is confidence, but that confidence comes from two or three years of building trust and believing we can get back to that spot."
That's the attitude that Texas -- which lost to eventual champ UCLA in the regional finals last year -- took into the deciding set Thursday. It helped that when it comes to weapons, the Longhorns have quite a spectacular variety of them. And they all came into play in the final set, which Texas won 15-11.
Everything from the airy athleticism of Webster, who at one point hung almost suspended as she sharply angled a kill over two would-be blockers, to the gritty defense of libero Sarah Palmer, who finished with a career-high 31 digs.
Webster led the Longhorns with 18 kills, and three teammates were also in double figures: Haley Eckerman with 16, Sha'Dare McNeal 13, and Khat Bell 11.
"I think it makes it difficult for teams to scout certain players and try to stop one," Allison said. "For me, I can be a little bit creative with who I set, what play-calls I make, because I have so many players who can put the ball away."
Now, Texas will get another chance at winning the program's second national championship. The Longhorns won the first before these current players were born in 1988. Texas has been in the NCAA final twice since: in 1995, when the Longhorns lost to Nebraska, and in 2009, when they lost to Penn State.
"When you're a coach at Texas, there's a lot of pressure and a lot of eyes are on you," Elliott said. "We've done such a good job as a program and a staff to get back here. If we're going to win, the players are going to have to do it. We've coached them enough.
"They're going to have to make plays and be mentally tough, like they were tonight."