Longhorns taking it one game at a time
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.
Texas’ Khat Bell spikes the ball past USC’s Alicia Ogoms in the regional finals.