UT Volleyball Charges Into NCAA Finals With Improbable Win

As the fourth set of Thursday’s national volleyball semifinal against the University of Michigan began, The University of Texas was staring at a 2-1 deficit. It’s not a position the team was terribly unfamiliar with—UT had come back from similar deficits multiple times during the regular season—but it was one that was, for most observers, a bit difficult to fathom.

The Longhorns, after all, were the third-ranked squad in the nation, and had posted a 23-4 recording during the regular season, including notching a 17-match win streak during their most impressive stretch. The Wolverines, however, had come into the NCAA Tournament unranked, having posted only a 19-11 record on the year.

Despite seeing Michigan tally wins against No. 9 Louisville and No. 2 Stanford during the NCAA Tournament, the Longhorns were heavy favorites to advance to the national finals. But here they were, having just lost the third set 25-23, and now staring at only one more set between them and the end of the season.

The fourth set opened with the two squads trading points and serves. After Michigan tacked three straight points to pull within 11-9, a service error gave the Longhorns a point, as well as the ball back. Texas then followed it up by forcing an attack error from Michigan’s outside hitter. A rally had begun.

Led by a handful of kills from sophomore outside hitter Haley Eckerman and a string of assists from junior setter Hannah Allison, the Longhorns proceeded to grab 12 of the next 15 points, the most dominant run of the entire match. Taking the fourth set 25-12, the Longhorns had forced a final set to determine who would face the sixth-ranked University of Oregon in the national championship.

The Longhorns continued their pace through the fifth set, opening up a quick 4-0 lead. After swapping a handful of points, Michigan’s outside hitter Lexi Erwin—the MVP in Michigan’s earlier Berkeley Regional—brought the Wolverines back to an 8-8 tie. The Longhorns proceeded to call a timeout and regrouped, planning a way to put away unranked Michigan.

Junior All-American outside hitter Bailey Webster completed a pair of kills, part of her team-high 18 kills on the night, to give Texas some breathing space. Swapping more points moving forward, the Longhorns ended up seeing a 14-11 lead, only a point from victory. Michigan served, attempting to claw back, but a kill from senior utility Sha’Dare McNeal cemented UT’s win.

Helped along by junior libero Sarah Palmer’s career-high 31 digs, the Longhorns will now have the chance to play in their fourth national championship final in the program’s history. The contest against the Ducks—which will be UT’s attempt at a second national title and its first appearance in the final since 2009— will take place tonight at 6 p.m. CST and will be broadcast on ESPN2.

Texas will roll into the contest as the nominal favorite, not simply because of the ranking, but also because head coach Jerritt Elliott has also been named the 2012 AVCA Division I National Coach of the Year. Furthermore, the ‘Horns  enter the match now knowing they can play just as well with an advantage as they do when facing a deficit. While they’ve yet to do it in a national final, this improbable, impressive win against the Wolverines was the third time in their NCAA postseason history that Texas has come back from a 2-1 disadvantage.

The volleyball team celebrates after winning the 26 West Longhorns Classic in August. Photo courtesy Texas Athletics.


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