It's the best weekend of the volleyball year. The Final Four.
It's fun having 50 matches going on at the same time. It is. But it's overwhelming, too. There's something amazing about knowing all eyes are on one city, one arena, one court, three match, and four teams. We in the volleyball world unite to crown our champions this weekend, and tonight's the first step.
Everything gets put to the test tonight.
Texas got out of the gates first, with a well-formed double block against the pipe attack. Sarah Palmer gave the point back on her next serve with the error, and we were underway. At 2-1, Deme Morales took her first shot of the night, going at Texas setter Hannah Allison, but even Allison has four inches on Deme, and the Horns got the block to go up by two. Badger libero Annemarie Hickey got the first ace of the night to knot the scores again at 3-all. Kills from Courtney Thomas and Dominique Thompson extended the run to 5-3 in Wisconsin's favour. A second reception flub in as many serves led to the Badgers going up 6-3, and Texas called time.
The run continued after the timeout, with the kill from Thomas extending the Badgers to a 7-3 lead. On this rally, Morales made it through Allison's block to get the score to 8-3. Finally, Allison broke the run with a kill off a setter dump. That sent Haley Eckerman to the service line, and she notched a kill on her own serve before Morales got the sideout off the block and out. A long hit from Khat Bell and it was 10-5 Badgers. A let-serve ace for KT Kvas made it a six-point lead for the Badgers at 13-7. Kills for Molly McCage and Eckerman chipped away at the lead slightly, but Ellen Chapman got the Badgers the sideout back. Then it was Haleigh Nelson's turn, putting up the block against second-team All-American and Big 12 Freshman of the Year Chiaka Ogbogu to make it 15-9. Texas called their second timeout there.
The Longhorns scored the first two after the timeout, but again Chapman found the floor to keep them from coming any closer. Then Texas setter Allison made one of her more curious choices, one she'd been making all tournament -- setting Amy Neal in the pipe while Eckerman was available front-row. Sure enough, Wisconsin formed the block, and again went up by six at 17-11. Eckerman rotated to serve at 18-13, and elicited an overpass that Bell ate up. On the next rally, Bailey Webster finally got her name on the stat sheet with a solo block, prompting Wisconsin to call timeout.
And the timeout did its thing, icing Eckerman on the service line. She got the point back from the pipe on the next rally, making it 19-16. The block from Allison and McCage got the Horns within two, but another service error, this from Bell, got the Badgers to 20. A tip kill from McCage and a hitting error from the Badger right side made it 20-19, and Wisconsin called their last timeout.
A first-ball sideout on the right-side slide for Thompson got Wisconsin the serve back. Nelson and Morales came up with the double block on the next rally, making three the magic number as the score reached 22-19. A long hit from Webster put the Badgers on the cusp of set point, and a long follow-through on McCage on the slide play made it set point. Another Badger block, from Nelson, made for a 25-19 final -- and a 5-0 run to close out the set.
The big disparity in set 1 was at the service line, with three Badger aces against none for Texas, and just one Wisconsin service error to four for the Horns.
The Badgers kept the good times rolling in set 2, starting off on serve and getting the first three, with an ace for 3-0. Texas went to a back-row sub, Pilar Victoria, to pass with three rather than two as she replaced Ogbogu. It worked, as Texas' ball-control was much better on receive at 3-0, getting the sideout.
On the 3-2 rally, Texas' Amy Neal came up with possible the save of the season, getting the ball over the net on 3 from at least 40 feet away, facing the wrong direction. Wisconsin very understandably thought they had the point won, and though it looked like Neal's unbelievable return might have landed just wide, they played it up. And overpassed it. It led to an easy block for the Longhorns, which could have been a momentum moment.
But Wisconsin were not deterred, getting the next three to again go up by that margin. The run extended to 8-3, and Texas called timeout. The timeout did not stop the roll, as the score reached 10-3 before Texas finally sided out. Chloe Collins came in for Texas at setter, the sure sign of "something's not going right" for the Horns. And that was just noise, as the Badgers reached a shocking 12-4 lead. Eckerman sided out there, and rotated back to serve, but she had just one attempt from the service line. The blocking mismatch the setting change introduced was epitomised in the rally ending 14-6, as the 6-foot-4 Chapman easily got through the 5-foot-7 Collins. Yet another ace from Chapman made it a 9-point edge at 17-18, and Texas had little choice but to call their final timeout.
McCage got the Longhorns a sideout on the right-side slide attack after the timeout, but Wisconsin got the point back immediately. Bell and Ogbogu put up the double block to pull back a point at 18-10, and Collins and Webster at 19-12. Then at 20-12, Webster scored her first kill of the match. Karch Kiraly on commentary had noted that Collins plays much less than Allison largely because she has trouble effectively setting Webster, and as if to drive that home, Allison re-entered the match after two more Badger points made it 22-13. Lauren Carlini, who had had a brilliant match so far setting, got her name in the 'kills' column to put Wisconsin right on the edge of set point at 23-14. At 23-15, the Longhorns scored their first ace of the night, with Neal splitting two Wisconsin passers. A kill from Eckerman, her impressive tenth of the night, drew the score to 23-17, and Wisconsin elected to call timeout.
Chapman's kill off the block touch and long got us to set point Wisconsin at 24-17. The Longhorns staved off the first, on reception, with a slide to McCage on the right side, but Morales got the Badgers their sideout to go up 2 sets to nil at intermission.
I thought Texas head coach Jerritt Elliott came off a little disrespectful in his quickie halftime interview with sideline reporter Maria Taylor. He framed his team's two-sets deficit as being of their own doing, feeling that Wisconsin hadn't really done much. I don't put too much into this -- I doubt coaches think much about what they have to say in those little interviews -- but it was kinda noticeable all the same.
Texas changed their rotation to begin set 3, swapping Eckerman and Webster. Back-to-back hitting errors for the Badgers in the early going gave the Horns one of their first true leads of the night at 3-1, and another gave Texas their sideout at 4-2. A kill for Ogbogu, her first of the match, made it 5-2. The Badgers peeled a point back at 5-3 with yet another service ace, this one from Thomas. On the next serve, Texas overpassed and it was the setter Carlini who leapt up and smacked the ball down. That tied the score at 5-all, but the attack errors from the Wisconsin side kpet Texas ahead. Two more straight made it 7-5 Longhorns, before Thompson's sideout at 7-6.
8-6 was then the longest rally of the match so far, ending with a bad set to the left side and a whiff from Eckerman as the ball simply fell in. Back-to-back blocks put the Badgers on top for the first time in the set at 9-8. Texas got the lead back at 10-9 on another pretty loing rally, which ended with a lift call against the Badgers. The Webster solo block put them up two at 13-11, but before the replay of that play was even over, they gave the point back on the service error. A kill for McCage off the touch made it 15-12 Texas, much to the chagrin of the Badgers on the court and the bench. With no charged timeouts prior, that made for a media timeout.
The Badgers started chipping away at the lead after the timeout, and tied up the set at 17-all. On reception at 17-all, you could audibly hear Texas players saying "Out out out!" but Eckerman played the serve anyway. She got bailed out when Carlini tried to smash the overpass and just barely did nick the net on her follow-through. You could see the ecstacy turn to agony on her face, from one second to the next, as she turned from the play to huddle with her teammates. When Texas went up by two at 19-17, Wisconsin called timeout.
The first rally after the timeout was very long, eventually ending with Eckerman terminating from the left side to get Texas to 20 for the first time tonight. Somewhat surprisingly, Texas called timeout at 20-18, with a point for each team in between timeouts. The Badgers went to work after the timeout, coming even at 20-all before a Chapman hitting error kept Texas in the slenderest of leads. Sideout after sideout we went, until a net fault against Carlini got Texas to set point at 24-22. Wisconsin called their final timeout there.
Wisconsin staved off their reception set point, with Carlini going to Thompson up the middle for the kill to make it 24-23. Eckerman committed the crucial overpass on that rally, making it 24-all. They claimed the next point, to get their match point at 25-24. Allison went to Webster on the left side, and Webster scored a, for this match, rare kill to keep Texas alive. On 25-all, Thompson's hit on the right side slide drilled the net, giving Texas set point again at 26-25. Wisconsin overcame a dodgy pass on that serve to get a kill and sideout from Morales on the left side to make it 26-all. Morales then went back to serve, but she was unable to bring about another Badger match point, as Eckerman's sideout made it 27-26, and Texas' fourth shot at set point. That was the final one, as Chapman missed long for a 28-26 final.
Tough serving pressure this time from Texas got the Horns out to an early 3-1 lead. Bell scored an ace, just the Horns' second, for their second point. A hitting error from Morales put Texas up three at 5-2. The lead reached four at 7-3, but Wisconsin came back. At 8-6, Texas libero Palmer made a cringe-inducing attempt at a free ball (and isn't "attempt at a free ball" just the saddest phrase you can imagine?), with the ball landing a good five feet long. Texas got the point back at 11-8, when Webster put the block up against Carlini after her attempt on 2.
On the very next rally, Carlini came up with one of the most unlikely sets I've ever seen, bumping the ball 30 feet in the air and all the way across the court to Chapman on the left pin. It was right in position, and the Badgers got the kill and sideout. A net violation on McCage tied the set a little later, at 12-all. Webster's kill a moment later kept Texas in the true lead at 14-12, but a nice out-of-system rally from the Badger side tied the score again at 15-all. Former setter Thomas stepped back into her old role for a moment to get the ball to Thompson for the kill. Texas then sided out to bring us to the media timeout at 15-14.
The Longhorns got the next service point, with the block from Bell and McCage against Chapman putting them ahead 18-16. Wisconsin immediately called timeout. A long rally after the timeout went to Eckerman off hands and out, putting Texas up by three. Carlini got the kill on the next rally, sending the ball over on 2 -- moments after her counterpart Allison had tried the same play. A hitting error from Eckerman brought Wisconsin back within a point, but she sided out on the next rally to get Texas to 20 with a two-point lead. A kill from Chapman and a block for the Badgers against Eckerman, who was way too deep in the court to hit from the pipe, made for a tie set at 21-all. Texas called timeout there.
Texas got the first point after the timeout, as Morales' attempt at a tip failed to clear the net. Carlini went right back to Morales on the next play, and got a first-ball sideout. A rejection of Ogbogu by Morales and Thompson made it 23-22 Wisconsin, and Texas called time.
Coming back from the timeout, Texas again went to a passing sub, with Victoria entering the match for Eckerman. And it worked. A first-ball sideout for McCage on the right-side slide levelled the scores at 23-all. As had happened so many times tonight, the Horns gave the point right back, as Neal's serve landed wide. 24-23 was then a long rally, with Morales taking swing after swing after swing. But there were to be no extra points in the fourth, as little Deme took the final swing of the night, her kill off the back row and out making for a 25-23 final.
#12 Wisconsin d. #1 Texas (25-19, 25-18, 26-28, 25-23)
Major props to the Badgers on the huge upset. If you picked Wisconsin for this and did so because you genuinely thought they would win (and aren't just an alum/fan), could you maybe tell me tomorrow's lottery numbers too? I sure as hell called this one wrong, but I don't mind that one bit. When you're wrong, that means you're either in for an entertaining surprise or a new learning experience. Not sure which this one was, but those are just as much fun if not more than an opportunity to pat yourself on the back.
US national team member Cassidy Lichtman tweeted the simple phrase "Passing and defense, kids" after the conclusion of the match, and the stat sheet sure bears it out. Texas hit .156 for the match, Wisconsin just .133. Morales getting the final kill of the night barely put her in the black at all, as she finished 14/13/41, for a whopping .024. The highest attack percentage for any player, without even enforcing any kind of a minimum number of swings, was .294 (from Khat Bell). So this was a defensive battle, and that was going to favour Wisconsin. I just didn't expect that would be the kind of match.
The service line really was not Texas' friend tonight, as Wisconsin finished at 7 aces, 3 errors, and Texas at 2 aces, 9 errors. That's +13 for the Badgers, and it doesn't even account for all the bad passes leading to broken rallies, of which there were quite a few. Digs were actually reasonably close to even (72 to 64), but it's not hard to nail down whose back line well out-performed the other. Truthfully, Wisconsin probably should have swept. Only a nightmare of a hitting line in set 3 (16 attack errors in that one set, and a negative efficiency) led to Texas winning in extras.
As for nightly stat leaders, Eckerman and Chapman tied for match-high honours in kills with 17 apiece. Eckerman tied her season-high by taking 60 swings, and had just a .133 efficiency to show for herself. Chapman's .189 thus looks a lot better. Chapman's three aces and Hickey's two, both without an error (the only Badger to commit a service error tonight was Morales -- she had all three that Wisconsin accrued) kept Texas on their back heels whenever either of those two were serving. Blocks went Texas' way by a margin of 19 to 10, with Bell accumulating 10 individually, but that just didn't end up mattering.
Major congratulations to the Wisconsin Badgers for reaching the national final. They'll be massive underdogs against whomever they face. Seems that's just how they like it.