How dare ESPN try to turn a profit?
This night's action fell outside my powers to watch live, so I subsisted with replays for the first three matches. I didn't watch the last match — at least, not to write it up — and I'll explain why at the end of this post. The short answer is it would have turned my night before work (blast, work!) from low-sleep to no-sleep.
But on the whole, watching the replays was fun. It sure beat not seeing the matches at all, and I saw the first three unspoiled. That meant my night started with Stanford vs Penn State, a matchup befitting the national finals rather than the regional finals.
The Nittany Lions started off the match on serve, and got on the board first, too, with Deja McClendon finding the floor from the left side. The teams traded points to start off the match, and did so quite directly on the 1-1 and 2-1 rallies. On the first, Inky Ajanaku led the double block for the Cardinal, but moments later it was she who ran into the brick wall — that of Penn State's Katie Slay. The Cardinal took the first true lead at 4-2, on a hitting error from Megan Courtney. The Nittany Lions drew it even at 6-all, and on this rally libero Dominique Gonzalez made an absolutely unbelievable save — she scampered wide of the right pin to reach the ball, and furiously jabbed at it with one hand, getting it over the net. Her teammates Slay and Nia Grant repaid that great effort with the double block. Moments later, another block put Penn State ahead for the first time. But on 7-6, it was Stanford's turn to put the block up, for a 7-all tie.
The 9-all rally was the next eye-popper, with block after block and cover after cover on both sides. Finally, it was Rachel Williams who found the floor from the right side for Stanford, giving them a service point for the narrow 10-9 lead. Burgess then terminated from the left side, to put Stanford up two. But Penn State needed no time to draw even again, with Micha Hancock's first ace of the match making it 11-all. Her second, right between two Stanford passers, made it 12-11. Williams sided her out on the next rally for 12-all. On 13-12, Stanford setter Madi Bugg tried for a dump, but Slay was having none of it, sending it right back in Bugg's direction. An overpass on Jordan Burgess' serve at 14-13 led to a slap-down kill for Ajanaku, ensuring that the margin at the media timeout would be just a point. Penn State managed to sideout to secure that slim advantage.
The media timeout iced Gonzalez on serve, as she missed into the net. A hitting error from Carly Wopat on 16-15 afforded Penn State the next true lead. Courtney's block-out kill made it 18-15 — the first three-point lead of the set. Unsurprisingly, Stanford coach John Dunning took that occasion to expend his first timeout of the set.
Courtney got a big solo block on the first rally after the timeout, beating Wopat in a 1-on-1 blocking matchup on a slide play. That put Penn State up by four, but the Cardinal were undeterred, claiming the next four to again tie the set. I thought Russ Rose might call timeout after the Wopat/Williams double block against Courtney, but he kept it in his back-pocket. After Bugg's service ace to make it 20-19, though, he did call timeout.
A rare poor set from Hancock trapped Ariel Scott into hitting into the double block on the right-side, putting Stanford back ahead by two. Hancock went to the left side on the next rally, feeding Courtney for the kill to finally side Bugg out off the service line. Penn State brought in a serving sub Paulina Prieto Cerame for Courtney, and her first serve was an overpass that flew straight to McClendon for an easy kill. Her next serve fell for an ace, making for yet another lead change in this seesaw first set. Stanford called their final timeout there, down 22-21.
Cerame had a big toss and a good approach on her next serve, but it just didn't quite clear the net. Courtney subbed back in for her after that, as the score came even at 22-all. A kill from the right side for Williams gave Stanford the lead back at 23-22, and Penn State expended their final timeout.
Stanford reached set point on the first rally after the timeout, as Hancock put a little too much oomph on her attempt at sending it over on 2. It landed a good three feet long. Another hitting error, from McClendon on the Penn State left side, gave set 1 to the Cardinal.
Bugg started set 2 on serve for the Cardinal, but she was unable to go on any kind of run like she did in the first, as Slay sided her out first-ball. Hancock then rotated to serve for Penn State, and elicited an overpass on her first attempt, that McClendon slammed to the floor. Brittany Howard managed to get Hancock off serve on the next rally, setting up her own service attempt. The Cardinal came level at 3-all when Gonzalez overpassed, leading to an overreach call on the Penn State left side. Some dodgy passing on reception at 4-all led to a cheapy point for Stanford, as Hancock could only try in vain for a one-handed set to keep the ball up. Didn't work. The Nittany Lions didn't legally return the next serve, either, putting Stanford up 6-4.
The Cardinal nursed that two-point lead, but handed the Nittany Lions a few of their sideouts on service errors. The next service point belonged to Penn State, as the Cardinal back row overpassed Gonzalez's serve, leaving Bugg to try a one-handed set. It flew over the net — I don't think that was her intent — and landed out of bounds. That made the score 11-all, and again the teams traded sideouts for a while. The media timeout again came at 15-14, and it was Penn State who took that narrow lead on the heels of a magnificent rally, featuring a nigh impossible save from, I believe, Hancock. Just top-notch stuff. It was at last McClendon who powered through the block.
Slay and McClendon formed the double block up the middle on the first rally after the timeout, giving them the two-point edge. Another kill for McClendon made it 17-14, and Stanford took a timeout. The first rally after the timeout went Stanford's way, as Hancock's repeated attempts at dumps on 2 eventually resulted in her committing a net fault. She walked away from the play grinning like a cheshire cat. It took all of no time for Penn State to get the point back, with the tallest tree on the court Slay getting the point up the middle. It looked on the 18-15 rally like Stanford had drawn a point closer on a long hit by McClendon, but after a moment, the up referee called a touch. Down 19-15, Stanford called their second timeout.
That timeout was perhaps to ice Hancock as much as anything, and if so it worked; she missed her serve at 19-15 to side Stanford out. But Scott got the point back on the next rally, getting the Nittany Lions to 20 first. Another big block for Slay and Scot made it a five-point lead for Penn State. You figure that's a tall ask, looking for anyone to come back from that, but Stanford fought on very gamely. On 21-17, the latest battle between Slay and Ajanaku went to the lady in black (that'd be Ajanaku), drawing Stanford within three. An ace for Stanford libero Kyle Gilbert made it 21-19, and Penn State called their first timeout of the set.
Stanford kept the ball rolling after the timeout, with Scott hitting long to make it 21-20. Finally, Scott managed to side out on the next rally, with tip after tip after tip until one did fall in. The 22-20 rally was an interesting one. Williams scored the kill for Stanford, and immediately Penn State protested that the ball hit the flagger (meaning that if it hadn't hit her, it would have landed long). Replays appeared to back this up (and the flagger's ruling in real time was long), but somehow the up official called a touch, which I didn't see in real time or on the replay. The Nittany Lions didn't protest long, and play was quickly back underway. The teams traded sideouts through to Penn State's set point at 24-22. The Nittany Lions went to their serving specialist Cerame to serve set point. Not sure the server mattered, but Penn State did win it right there, with McClendon getting the kill off the block and out.
Then came the joy of watching on replay — fast-forwarding through intermission!
Set 3 started off with an unforced error from Williams, giving Penn State a service point and a springboard to an early lead. They went out 3-0 before Burgess got Stanford their first sideout. The Cardinal got a little lazy against Hancock's multitudinous setter dumps, as the All-American got kills for the Nittany Lions' third and fourth points. Penn State maintained their three-point lead, with the rally ending 8-5 a bit of a statistical oddity. It was McClendon getting the set assist for Hancock on that rally, as the former had managed to dive and keep a ball alive in the back row, leading to a dump on 2 for the latter. On and on the teams traded sideouts, until a right-side double block for Ajanaku and Bugg on 11-9 drew Stanford within a point. Both sides had shots to end the 11-10 rally, and most everyone in the building thought it had ended before it actually did. It ended with a kill and sideout for the Nittany Lions. Before the replay of that point finished, Scott killed a Cardinal overpass to re-establish Penn State's three-point lead at 13-10. On the next rally, she edged Penn State out to 14-10. Rather than wait for the media timeout, Dunning called time for Stanford.
On the first rally after the timeout, both sides celebrated like they had won it. The Penn State left side hit the ball obviously long, but a touch was called against Ajanaku on her block attempt. She was obviously displeased, but rebounded to get the point back on the next rally with the kill. Stanford closed to within three at 17-14, when what should have been a joust for Grant and Wopat never really materialised, and the ball fell in just in front of Grant, still on the Nittany Lion side. The teams went on mostly trading sideouts, with Penn State getting one on 18-15 at the end of another awesome long rally with great defence on both sides. Hancock went back to serve on 19-15 and got off a good one, but Williams' soft little tip kind of confused the Penn State block, as the ball bounded off them and fell in. More and more the sideouts kept coming, with Courtney's kill to make it 21-17 presaging a Stanford timeout.
It looked like Scott had just snuck her hit in on the first rally back from the timeout, but it was ruled long to make it 21-18. An all-too-easy overpass for Wopat made it 21-19, and then Bugg showed some impressive ambidexterity on that rally. She sent the ball over with her left hand first and got it sent back to her, but then sent it back over on 1 with her right hand and got the kill. That made it 21-20 in a set that, in contrast to the first two, had had no ties nor lead changes thus far. Penn State called their first timeout there, having given up three straight ponts.
Stanford kept siding out, and crucially got one on serve at 23-22 to tie the set. The Nittany Lions nearly turned another miracle on that rally, the one ending 23-all, but just did fail to legally return the ball. Penn State expended their last timeout there, as the score tied for the first time in the set (unless you count 0-0). McClendon's block-out kill after the timeout made it set point Lions, but Burgess responded with a block-out of her own to make it 24-all.
McClendon's more traditional kill on the next rally gave Penn State their next set point at 25-24, with Hancock serving. But it really didn't matter — an easy first-ball sideout for Williams kept the score tied. McClendon once again got the kill to give Penn State set point, and she rotated back to serve at 26-25. Burgess fought this one off for Stanford. With McClendon in the back row, it was Scott who got the next kill to set up Penn State's next set point. She slammed home the winner on the next rally, too, putting the Nittany Lions up 2 sets to 1.
A kill machine at the end of set 3, McClendon hit wide to begin set 4, putting Stanford on the board first. But a first-ball sideout for Slay on the next rally and a kill from the right side for Scott negated the damage. Tie scores occurred at the first 4 point stations, before back-to-back kills by Ajanaku gave Stanford the first true lead. A double block for Ajanaku and Howard made it 7-4. A roll shot kill for Scott got the Nittany Lions their sideout at 7-5, but the Cardinal kept the pressure up. A double block for Wopat and Bugg against Courtney made it 9-5, and Penn State called an early timeout.
The first rally after the timeout resulted in a kill for the recently-inserted Aiyana Whitney, who thought it was then her turn to serve. It wasn't. Cerame took to the service line, but slapped her one serve a little too hard, as it fell long. Back-to-back back row faults from Stanford setter Bugg closed Penn State to within two at 10-8. The serve at 10-8 wasn't returned. Curiously, the up official first pointed to Penn State, for an ace, then pointed to Stanford. The camera didn't catch where the ball landed, but you'd think a team as good as Stanford wouldn't just abandon a ball that was landing in. And, sure enough, service error was the call that stood. Stanford had a very good chance to go up four on the 11-8 rally, but McClendon came up with a big solo block to deny Williams and sideout. Hancock responded with her fifth service error of the night, keeping the margin at three points in Stanford's favour.
Burgess' kill on serve made it a four-point lead for Stanford at 13-9, but this lasted almost no time, as the next chapter of Slay vs Ajanaku went to the lady in white. Slay's big block closed Penn State to within 13-11. A back-row call against Hancock on 15-12 meant Stanford extended back to a four-point lead. Cerame thought sure she'd found hands on her hit at 16-12, and tried to sell the call to the officials, but no touch was called. Down five, Penn State called their last timeout.
The Nittany Lions took the first two coming out of the timeout, getting some big digs from Gonzalez and Lacey Fuller in the back row to keep the play going both times. But Ajanaku sided her Cardinal out on 18-14, and Cerame hit straight into Wopat and Bugg's double block on the next rally, negating the two Penn State points. Cerame's unforced error on 19-14 got Stanford to 20, and at 20-14 they held their largest lead of the night. Williams found the floor from the back row to make it 21-14, and it was clear we'd be racing to 15 for a ticket to Seattle. The service run for Mary Ellen Luck (kid sister of NFL quarterback Andrew) reached near-goofy proportions, as Penn State could only sideout at 23-15.
Wopat's error on the right-side slide got the Nittany Lions a point closer, and then Howard hit about 20 feet long on the 23-16 rally. It's likely she wasn't even trying to find the sport-court, but rather to find hands. At 23-17, Stanford called their first timeout of the set. An over-dig led to an easy chance for Wopat on the first rally back, setting up set point for the Cardinal at 24-17. Bugg's serve flew way long, gifting the Nittany Lions their sideout, but the Cardinal's first-ball sideout on the next rally set the stage for a fifth set.
Penn State started off set 5 on serve, and Hancock, serving slightly less aggressively, got an overpass. Scott put the ball away to get Penn State on the board first. Wopat responded with a first-ball sideout on the other side, and the teams traded points to begin the decider. Courtney's solo block to make it 4-2 was the first service point, but her wide hit two rallies later was the next, to make it 4-all. Stanford took their first lead at 5-4 with a block from Howard and Ajanaku. Cerame hit about 15 feet long on the 5-4 rally, putting Stanford up 6-4. The Stanford run continued with Howard's kill making it 7-4 — a five-point run. Finally, Grant got the sideout up the middle to make it 7-5. Cerame hit into Ajanaku's block on the next rally, and Stanford led by 8-5 at the side change.
The Nittany Lions managed to get the sideout on the first rally after the side change, and they turned to Cerame as their serving specialist at 8-6. She got off a good one, seeming to get Stanford's offence out of system, but a huge solo block for Howard against Grant's slide attack on the right side kept Stanford up by three. Penn State called their first timeout there. McClendon's 20th kill of the night got Penn State their sideout at 9-7, and then on the next rally Hancock and Slay combined for the block to draw the Nittany Lions within 9-8. That meant it was Stanford's turn to call timeout.
Hancock went to McClendon on the left side on the first rally after the timeout, and she seemed to jump higher than she had all night for a straight-down vertical kill to tie the score. An overpass on the next serve flew straight to Slay for an easy kill to make it 10-9 Penn State. Wopat then hit into McClendon and Slay's double block to put the Nittany Lions up 11-9, and Stanford called their final timeout.
Grant's service run continued after the timeout, as Stanford just could not get out of this rotation. Another big block for Hancock and Slay put the Nittany Lions up 12-9. Finally, Howard managed to side the Cardinal out, rotating her back to serve. But Slay scored the first-ball sideout up the middle on the other side, putting Penn State on the cusp of match point. Burgess found the floor to make it 13-11 on the next rally, a first-ball sideout on the left side for Stanford. Both sides had chances to end the 13-11 rally, but it was once again Slay finding the floor to set up Penn State's match point. And it was Courtney who sealed the deal and punched the Nittany Lions' ticket to Seattle for the Final Four.
The remaining matches sure had a tall task to top the instant classic that began the evening. Up next was the all-Big Ten regional final in Champaign, Illinois.
This is the one oddball matchup in the four regional finals, as the other three all feature the region's top two seeds facing off. This match, with unseeded Purdue against 12th-seeded Wisconsin, will send a team to Seattle that no one but the teams themselves probably expected a month ago at this time.
And so I enjoyed another joy of watching on delay. Live, the beginning of this match overlapped with the end of the previous one, if slightly. Watching on replay meant I got to see every point.
Purdue's Hilliary Fox started the match on serve, and claimed one before the Badgers sided out. 2-1 was a terrific rally, ending with a tip kill for Deme Morales — the shortest OH in the Big Ten at a scant 5-foot-7 — on the Wisconsin left side. It was a shame the Boilermakers couldn't pay off the back row efforts of Fox earlier in the rally, as despite nearly slipping falling she managed to keep the ball alive a couple of times. Wisconsin took their first lead with a double block rejection against Sam Epenesa to make it 3-2, and another kill for Morales gave the first true lead of the match at 5-3. Same story on the next rally, to put the Badgers up 6-3. A Kiki Jones hitting error meant the run continued, Wisconsin reaching a 7-3 lead. Morales tried to find the hands again on 7-3, but couldn't find them, and Purdue sided out as her hit landed wide and long. A service ace for Morales made it 9-4, and Purdue called time.
A Badger net fault after the timeout got Purdue their sideout. The teams traded a few points to the serve of Big Ten freshman of the year Lauren Carlini at 11-6. A bad pass left setter Val Nichol to drift into the net, putting the Badgers up six. The teams traded points for another stretch, with Purdue getting a few gimmes on Wisconsin service errors. They took one on serve at 14-9, with a kill from Epenesa on a bit of a frantic rally, and another from Annie Drews at 15-11 to draw within three. A slide on the right side to Dominique Thompson, undersized as a middle blocker at 5-foot-11, kept the Boilermakers from coming any closer. Drews' hit on 16-12 was obviously quite long, but the up ref found a touch. A double block for Nichol and Faye Adelaja made it just a two-point set. Another big block against Haleigh Nelson made it a one-point margin at 17-16, and on the next rally Catherine Rebarchak's kill down the line tied the score at 17-all. That prompted Wisconsin to call timeout.
Ellen Chapman got the Badgers their direly-needed sideout on the first rally back from the timeout, keeping Purdue from taking the lead. But only for a moment — a double block for Jones and Rebarchak made it 19-18 Boilermakers. Again Chapman had the answer, finding a little paint in right-back for her sixth kill of the set to make it 19-all. On that rally, the ball drifted just a little too far from the Boilermakers on their side of the net, into the waiting hands of Badger middle blocker Nelson to put Wisconsin back up a point. Rebarchak looked for hands on her swing at 21-20, but found none. Down two, Purdue called their last timeout.
Rebarchak succeeded in finding hands on her first swing after the timeout. Moments later, Morales hit into Nichol and Jones' double block, to tie the score at 22-all. Wisconsin immediately called their final timeout. Thompson's first-ball sideout up the middle got Wisconsin the narrow lead back. A low set from Nichol to Jones on the right pin on the next rally resulted in a wide hit by the latter, and a set point chance for the Badgers. Despite a couple of terrific diving digs from Fox, the Boilermakers could not stave off set point, getting whistled for a double hit to end the first frame.
Carlini started set 2 off in style for the Badgers, getting her team's second service ace of the match. The next serve resulted in a miscommunication between Nichol and Adelaja up the middle, making it 2-0 Badgers. Epenesa emphatically sided out on the next rally, and then an unforced hitting error up the middle from Nelson made it 2-2. A 'forced' error up the middle on the next rally, with Jones putting the block up against Nelson, gave Purdue their first lead of the set. Jones slapped down an overpass on 3-2 to give Purdue the 4-2 advantage. Purdue libero Carly Cramer then tried for a sneaky short serve, but she put a little too little on it, as it gently glided into the net. Cramer then overpassed on the next rally, eliciting an over-reach fault from Nichol. Wisconsin took the lead back on the next rally, and then Epenesa's wide cut shot made it 6-4 — the teams had just traded 4-0 runs.
The 7-5 rally featured a terrific save from Cramer, diving away from the net for a blind stab at the ball, which was the 3rd hit for her side. She somehow got it over the net, and her teammates redeemed that effort with a double block for Epenesa and Jones to sideout. But Wisconsin didn't let it get to them, Thompson claiming the next sideout on the right-side slide. A fine athletic set from Carlini, misdirecting the block, led to another right-side kill for the Badgers, giving them the three-point lead at 9-6. She tried to go up and save an overpass at 9-7, but really had no chance to do so. A right-side block for Purdue tied the score at 9-all, and a wide hit from Wisconsin's right side put the Boilermakers back ahead at 10-9. After trading the next four points, Purdue took the two-point lead at 13-11 with a kill from Epenesa to undefended right-back. She got the next kill, too, to put Purdue up 14-11. Chapman managed to side Wisconsin out and keep Purdue's scoring run from extending to the media timeout, but Epenesa's third kill in as many swings made it so Purdue still led by three, 15-12, as play halted.
A high-arching loopdyloop serve from Fox failed to clear the net, giving Wisconsin the first sideout after the timeout. But Purdue took the first service point, with Nichol leading the double block to make it 17-13. The lead extended to 19-14 with a kill scraping the back line, following a good out-of-system set from Cramer. Wisconsin called timeout there. They peeled back a point on the 19-15 rally, despite the valiant efforts of Amanda Neill on the back line for the Boilermakers. On the 19-16 rally, a bad pass from Cramer led to a bad set from Nichol which led to a bad set rom Drews for a hitting error, drawing Wisconsin to 19-17. Purdue called their first timeout at that point.
It was setter versus setter on the next rally, with Carlini coming up victorious by blocking Nichol. Courtney Thomas' service run continued with an ace to tie the score at 19-all. Carlini covered a lot of ground on the 19-all rally to deliver a picture-perfect set to Thompson on the right side, reaching the 3-metre line and facing the wrong direction to get it to the right side. Thompson found the sport-court to extend the Wisconsin run to 6-0, putting them back in the lead at 20-19. Purdue had little choice but to halt the run by calling their second and final timeout of the set.
Purdue finally managed to sideout, with Nichol exploiting a blocking mismatch against the smaller Morales. Badger DS Taylor Morey came up with some big digs on the 20-all rally, which eventually led to a kill off hands for Morales. Rebarchak scored by finding the block on the way out to put Purdue back on top at 22-21, and Wisconsin called their last timeout. A first-ball sideout for Chapman, her eighth kill of the match, tied the score once again. After another Boilermaker sideout, Rebarchak's kill off the set assist from Cramer made it set point Purdue. The Badgers staved off the first, on reception, rotating Carlini back to serve. A long rally ensued, and Epenesa powered through the block to send the teams to the locker rooms tied at a set apiece.
A service dud got the Badgers the first point of set 3. Epenesa hit into Thomas and Nelson's double block to give Wisconsin the true lead immediately. A kill for Rebarchak and a Badger net fault tied the score. More ties occurred in the early going, at each score from 2 through 5, before Wisconsin edged ahead by two. The Boilermakers had a chance to get the point back on 7-6, as the Badgers overpassed, but Nelson and Carlini combined for the double block to side the Badgers out. A good dig from Wisconsin libero Annemarie Hickey led to a soft-touch kill for Chapman, putting Wisconsin up 9-6. A kill from Morales got Wisconsin up four at 11-7.
The ensuing rally was the longest and craziest of the match. It looked like it was going to end about 6 different times — insanely good saves from both sides — before it finally did on Rebarchak's hitting error wide. Purdue called their first timeout of the set afterward, perhaps mainly to catch their breath, though they did also trail 12-7. Some more great rallies followed, and Thomas' kill on 13-8 gave Wisconsin the six-point lead for the first time in the set. Second Purdue setter Rachel Davis did her best to redeem a bad pass on the 16-10 rally, getting Jones a swing at the ball, but the Badgers dug it easily and found the floor themeslves in transition. Purdue called their second timeout trailing 17-10.
Purdue peeled back a couple to come within five on 17-12, but then flubbed a chance for another on a Wisconsin overpass. Carlini barely got fingertips on it, but she still managed to get it down to keep her Badgers up by six. The Boilermakers missed another opportunity on the 19-13 rally, as a miscommunication between Carlini and her hitter led to a free ball opportunity for them, but Rebarchak hit wide with no touch. A block-out kill for Morales, her 13th kill of the night, staked Wisconsin to an eight-point lead at 22-14. An easy quick up the middle to Nelson made it a nine-point set. The Boilermakers got a couple of good blocks in a row, and then a kill up the middle for Jones. A kill for Rebarchak on the right side narrowed the lead to 23-18, and Wisconsin decided they needed to slow things down a little.
Morales found the block and out on the next rally, setting up Wisconsin's set point. Carlini went back to her on the set point rally, and she didn't disappoint, finding hands once again to put Wisconsin up 2 sets to 1.
Purdue got on the board first in set 4, forming the double block against Morales on the left side. Carlini went right back to Morales on the next rally, and she got the point right back. A tippy roll shot from Epenesa found the right-back corner on the Wisconsin side, giving Purdue the true lead at 3-1. For the first time all night, Carlini was whistled for a double hit, making it 4-1 Boilermakers. She looked upset after the whistle, but it was probably with herself rather than with the chall (it was a pretty easy call). A kill from Thompson and then a block from Thompson and Morales tied the score at 4-all. Epenesa's hit into the block, Thompson and Carlini this time, put Wisconsin up for the first time in the set at 5-4. Epenesa missed on her next swing, too, the ball hitting only the net. Purdue looked a little out of their element there, and called timeout to regroup.
Nichol got the sideout after the timeout to end Wisconsin's run. The Boilermakers came even on the next rally, but a badly long hit from Drews kept them taking the lead. A kill for Chapman re-established Wisconsin's true lead, and then another put them up three at 10-7. A net fault on Rebarchak, as she all but ate the net on her follow-through, put Wisconsin up four, and in a blink another Chapman kill made it 13-8 at Purdue's second and final timeout.
At 14-9, it appeared in real time that Nichol had gotten the up on a pancake, digging Chapman's eleventy billionth kill of the match, but the up ref called it down. The Badgers claimed a really long rally on the next play as the tip from the Purdue right side hit the antenna on its way over. Then Chapman served long, giving the Boilermakers the quickest point possible in response. Purdue had difficulty doing any more than siding out, and had to feel deflated when Rebarchak missed her serve wide on 17-11. Then on 18-11, the pint-sized Morales was the one who ate up the overpass, giving Wisconsin an eight-pojnt lead as they tasted the Final Four.
A Boilermaker net fault made it 20-11, but they gamely fought on, taking the next three to make it 20-14 and prompt Wisconsin's first timeout of the set. An overpass on the first serve after the timeout led to a kill for Jones, extending Purdue's run. Drews then powered through the block to make it 20-16. Finally, Morales and her 19th kill got Wisconsin their 21st point. On the 21-16 rally, Drews somehow managed to get an up while on one knee, as the second and third hits on the Purdue side both happened with the ball maybe a foot off the ground. A block-out kill for Nichol and then a kill finding the corner of the court closed the Boilermakers to within 21-18, as they most decidedly did not go quietly into that good night. Wisconsin called their last timeout there.
And here I saw the drawback of watching on replay — there were only about four minutes remaining in the webcast at this point. That's sure not enough time to play a fifth set.
On the first rally after the timeout, Morales hit wide, seemingly getting the Boilermakers within two. Purdue coach Dave Shondell audibly shouted "WHAT?!" and got up to protest, gesturing with his hands to indicate how far out the ball was. But the call was touch, not down, and replays showed that it was the correct call. On 22-18, Nichol was afforded the benefit of a touch call at the net, but Chapman's 19th kill of the night got Wisconsin a step closer. They reached match point at 24-21, as Purdue got a couple more blocks before Nelson's block-out kill. Carlini went to Morales on that rally, and the diminutive pin hitter delivered to send Wisconsin to the national semifinals.
The next match was perhaps the best spectacle of the night, with the defending national champions Texas taking to one of the brightest stages in the sport, certainly in the United States — Lincoln, Nebraska's massive and jam-packed Devaney Centre. An enormous "go big red" chant started at the outset of the match. Texas were designated the home team for the match (as the higher seed), but um, no. This was a road match for them.
The Longhorns started off by scoring the first three, though this did not do much to quiet the crowd. Kadie Rolfzen was the first to get the Huskers on the board, at 3-1. A double block for Hannah Allison and Khat Bell against Big Ten Player of the Year Kelsey Robinson staked Texas to a quick 5-1 lead, and Nebraska called an early timeout.
Kat Brooks' service run continued after the timeout, with a kill for Haley Eckerman making for a five-point lead. Finally, Brooks netted her next serve to give Nebraska a sideout. Texas ran the slide to Bell on the right side on the next rally, and she seemed sure she got a touch, but one was not called. A vocal big-orange cheering contingent called an "awwwwww BOOM!" on Eckerman's serve at 7-3, a serve which resulted in a point for Texas as the Nebraska right side hit wide. Robinson missed badly on her swing at 8-4, as the ball hit the scorer's table on the fly. Ouch. Commentator Karch Kiraly suggested she was pressing a little — despite being a senior, she really has never played in a match this significiant. She got the sideout at 9-5, and then Kadie Rolfzen made it 9-6 by attacking Allison's side of the double block, and sneaking it through. Eckerman took a service point at 12-7, showing her veteran smarts by not even trying to get the ball down — she purposely hit high off hands to get the block-out for the kill.
The crowd kept roaring for the home team, especially as Rolfzen's kill and her and Melanie Keil's double block closed the Huskers to within 12-9. Chiaka Ogbogu's first kill of the match was the sideout at 13-9, and then the Horns extended to 14-9 on an unforced error from the Nebraska left side. Amber Rolfzen got the point back at 14-11, with a kill from the right side. It went sideout after sideout for a while from there. A double block for Bailey Webster and Molly McCage made it 19-14, and Nebraska called their second timeout.
Strong serving from Allison extended Texas' run, take a football-sized lead at 21-14. And then Nebraska went on a little run. A kill for Keil on the right-side slide brought the score to 21-16, and a hitting error for Ogbogu into the net made it 21-17. That prompted Texas to call timeout. Webster's sideout after the timeout inched the Longhorns closer to the magic number of 25. Back-to-back kills rom Eckerman on the left side got us to set point at 24-18. The Texas bench threw up the 'horns, and the freshman Ogbogu found the floor to put her team up a set to nil.
Amy Neal's first serve of set 2 landed well long, to the audible delight of the highly pro-Husker crowd at the Devaney Centre. A long hit from Amber Rolfzen on the right side gave the point right back. A service ace for Nebraska libero Justine Wong-Orantes gave the Huskers the set's first true lead at 4-2.The advantage changed hands a few times over the course of about 5 seconds on the 4-2 rally, with Texas giving it away last as Bell hit wide to make it 5-2. Eckerman scored the sideout from the left side to make it 5-3, and rotated back to serve. The Huskers got her off the service line after just the one attempt.
That margin held steady for a solid stretch, and the Nebraska fans roared with every sideout for big red. Finally, a double block for McCage and Allison closed the score to 12-11, following 14 straight sideouts. I can't even imagine the score not changing during that, so you can imagine how quaint it seems to me when someone talks about rally scoring as if it's still this novelty. Texas tied the score on the next rally, and took the lead at 13-12 as McCage and Webster rejected Meghan Haggerty. While ESPN were showing the replay of that play, the ball fell in on Nebraska's side to make it 14-12, a play described by Kiraly as "total confusion" on the Husker side. They called timeout there.
Kadie Rolfzen notched the kill on the first rally after the timeout, to bring Nebraska back within a point. Then an attacking error by McCage tied the set at 14-all. Nebraska took the lead at 16-15 and had a real shot at taking a two-point lead, with a flub pass on the Texas back line. But setter Mary Polmiller's somewhat lazy block against Webster gave the latter an easy tip kill to sideout and come even again. Amber Rolfzen won a joust against Eckerman on the 17-16 rally to afford Nebraska that two-point edge, and the crowd went crazy. Texas called a timeout to slow things down.
An unlucky roll for Kadie Rolfzen tied the score, as her hit on 18-17 rolled on the net before a moment before it fell. That meant it fell wide. Her sister Amber beat the block for 19-18 on the next rally. Bell used her head on the next rally — and I do mean that literally, as she took one off the cranium for a block to tie the set again. Bell and Eckerman's double block on the next rally put Texas ahead 20-19, and Nebraska caled their last timeout.
Robinson got the first-ball sideout after the timeout, her 12th kill of the match. Eckerman's own 12th kill made it 21-20, and rotated her back to serve. She got off a good one, with a tough pass to setter Polmiller leading to an easily-dug hit. The resultant hit on the Texas side was Webster's, and she found the powered through the block to make it a two-point set, potentially crucially so in the late going. The 23-21 rally was long, with a terrific dig from of all people Bell (you don't think of middle blockers as being diggers), but Robinson got the kill and sideout to close the Huskers to within a point. Texas took their last timeout there.
A service error from Robinson made it set point Texas, and a solo block for Webster against Haggerty closed out the set for the Horns to go up 2-0 at intermission.
Nebraska scored first in set 3, with a back-row attack going against the Longhorns. A kill for Eckerman and a double block led by Ogbogu put the defending champs in the lead for the first time. A curious setting decision on the 2-all rally, feeding Neal in the back row, gave Nebraska back the slender lead. The teams traded points until a slappy setter dump from Polmiller on the 6-5 rally staked Nebraska to a two-point lead. Kadie Rolfzen's kill made it 9-6 Huskers, but her sister's hitting error on the 10-8 rally got Texas back within one. The Bell/Eckerman double block tied the set at 11-all, and Nebraska called their first timeout of the set.
More ties occurred, at scores from 12 through 14. A kill for Polmiller off the dump prompted Texas' timeout at 16-14. After a few more sideouts, Neal's ace, the first of the night for Texas, made it 17-all. She scored another on the next serve. The ball was clearly going to sail long, but Amber Rolfzen couldn't get out of the way before it did. It hit her on the thigh and then fell to the floor. Texas took the lead at 19-18 with Ogbogu finding the floor. Nebraska's left-side hitter sort of slipped and fell in the midst of this rally, and they called for the floor-wipers to come in after the rally ended.
Texas reached 20 first, but the Huskers were right behind. On 21-all, it looked like Allison may have netted on the Texas side, but the call was overreach on Keil, putting Texas ahead a point again. A frantic rally went the Huskers' way on 22-21 to tie the score, with Robinson getting her 20th kill of the night. Webster put the ball down on the next rally to put Texas on the cusp of match point, and to their credit, the home Nebraska fans only got louder. A critical offensive breakdown for the Huskers on 23-22 led to a free-ball going to the Texas side, and Webster cashed in to make it match point Texas at 24-22. Nebraska took their last timeout there.
Robinson staved off the first match point, but the final serve of her college career was one she'd surely like to forget, as the match and Nebraska's season ended as she served long.
That ended my night of viewing. It was midnight at that point, and I had to be off for work at 4:00. I loaded the USC/Washington replay, but upon seeing that it was nearly three hours in length, I decided to catch what few Z's I could. Hey, this doesn't pay the bills, much as I'd like it to.
That match was amazing, with Washington coming back from an 0-2 deficit to win in extra points in the fifth. The match had two massively impressive performances, one on each side of the net — and they may have just sealed seasonal awards for each respective player. USC freshman Ebony Nwanebu capped off a wildly successful rookie year by scoring 30 kills without a hitting error. As jaw-dropping as that is, it's probably not the best stat line put up in Los Angeles or the Elite Eight. That'd belong to Washington junior Krista Vansant, who scored an unbelievable 38 kills, but also got 30 digs on the back row. The 30-30, as well as the 38 kills, both constitute school records for an NCAA tournament match. Vansant was always one of the front-runners for national player of the year and may have just sealed it with that showing. A strong night against Penn State at home will do it for sure.
Full Day Five results"
#2 Penn State d. #7 Stanford (22-25, 25-22, 28-26, 18-25, 15-11)
#12 Wisconsin d. Purdue (25-22, 23-25, 25-18, 25-21)
#1 Texas d. #8 Nebraska (25-19, 25-22, 25-23)
#3 Washington d. #6 USC (26-28, 23-25, 25-22, 25-18, 17-15)
So after an amazing night of the Elite Eight, we've got three of the top four tournament seeds going at it in the Final Four. And being the lone interlopers, you can bet Wisconsin will be loose and ready. I'll do my best to get some preview content up before the actual Final Four matches this Thursday, and the national final on Saturday.