Longhorns tak­ing it one game at a time


Austin American-Statesman - - SPORTS - Note: re­sult

through its paces, tried to get a feel for play­ing in a fa­cil­ity much larger than its reg­u­lar home court, Gre­gory Gym. The Fi­nal Four will be held at the KFC Yum Cen­ter, a 22,000-seat fa­cil­ity on the Ken­tucky bank of the Ohio River.

It’s not that the thir­dranked (and third­seeded) Longhorns are cocky — though they cer­tainly have ev­ery right to be af­ter eas­ily dis­patch­ing 15th-ranked Florida and No. 4 South­ern Cal in the Austin Re­gional over the week­end, sweep­ing both matches.

It’s just that their dom­i­nant re­gional dis­play was the con­tin­u­a­tion of fine play in the first two rounds of the NCAA tour­na­ment, when Texas beat Col­gate in three sets and Texas A&M in four.

“Our goal for the sea­son to this point was to make it to the Fi­nal Four and be play­ing our best when we got there,” libero Sarah Palmer said. “We are so strong at ev­ery po­si­tion, and against USC we might have played the best we have all year. But we know there’s a lot of work to still be done.”

Texas will face un­ranked Michi­gan in Thurs­day’s first na­tional semi­fi­nal; top-ranked Penn State and No. 6 Ore­gon will play in the late match. The win­ners will meet Satur­day for the NCAA cham­pi­onship.

The Longhorns have been in this po­si­tion. Plenty. Texas made it to the 2009 na­tional cham­pi­onship match and fell in the semi­fi­nals in 2008 and 2010.

“It’s hard to com­pare this sea­son and the trip to the Fi­nal Four with the oth­ers, be­cause we have such a young team and most of our play­ers have not been through the ex­pe­ri­ence we will see in Louisville,” said coach Jer­ritt El­liott, who will make his fourth Fi­nal Four trip with Texas.

UT has per­haps the best left-side hit­ting com­bi­na­tion in Bai­ley Web­ster, last year’s Big 12 player of the year, and Ha­ley Eck­er­man, this year’s con­fer­ence player of the year. Web­ster is hit­ting .519 in the post­sea­son on 64 kills (4.92 kills per set) with eight blocks, while Eck­er­man is hit­ting .333 on 45 kills (3.46 kills per set) with 17 digs (1.31 digs per set).

“I have never been able to bring such a dom­i­nat­ing left-side hit­ting duo to the Fi­nal Four than I will this sea­son,” El­liott said. “It’s a huge ad­van­tage for us.”

Texas and Michi­gan have played only twice, with the Longhorns win­ning both. They last met in the sec­ond round of the 2004 NCAA tour­na­ment in Austin, a four-set UT vic­tory.

The other na­tional semi­fi­nal features per­haps the na­tion’s best player, Ore­gon’s Alaina Bergsma, the Pac-12 player of the year, and peren­nial pow­er­house Penn State, which won na­tional ti­tles in 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010. The Nit­tany Lions beat Texas in an epic fi­nal match in 2009 and the next year in the semi­fi­nals.

“I guar­an­tee you we won’t be look­ing past Michi­gan to Penn State,” said Sha’Dare McNeil, UT’s lone se­nior. “The best thing about our team all year has been the way we take things one point and one match at a time, and noth­ing’s go­ing to change about that now.” Fi­nAL­FOur His­tOrY This will be Texas’fourth Fi­nal Four in five years. How the Longhorns have fared: Fell to Penn State in na­tional semi­fi­nals Fell to Penn State in fi­nals (led 2-0) Fell to Stan­ford in semi­fi­nals, in five (led 2-0)

The Fi­nal Four will be in Seat­tle in 2013 and Ok­la­homa City in 2014.

Rodolfo Gon­za­lez/ AUSTIN amer­i­can-states­man

Texas’ Khat Bell spikes the ball past USC’s Ali­cia Ogoms in the re­gional fi­nals.

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