The only real puzzling piece when the NCAA committee announced the Top 16 seeds for this year’s tournament was the fact Kentucky beat out Nebraska for a top-four seed.
It meant, if all things held, the Wildcats would be hosting the regional in Lexington instead of the Huskers in Lincoln. It clearly gave Kentucky its best chance of reaching its first Final Four in program history. It was a head-scratcher, because in the committee’s initial Top 10 released at the beginning of November, it had Nebraska at No. 2, ahead of Kentucky.
The day the initial Top 10 was released, Kentucky actually lost to Florida. Nebraska didn’t lose the rest of the season, and yet when the Top 16 seeds were revealed Kentucky was No. 4 and Nebraska No. 5. It didn’t make much sense, honestly.
It did set the stage, however, for a clash between the two and when the dust settled on Saturday’s Elite Eight, Kentucky was the only one of the top-four seeds failing to advance to the Final Four in Kansas City. Nebraska is going instead, the Huskers’ making their third consecutive Final Four for the first time in school history.
The morning clash, which Nebraska grabbed in four games, 25-19, 25-22, 25-27, 25-22, opened up this year’s Elite Eight action. Yet, it wasn’t nearly the most exciting outcome of the day.
That belonged to Florida’s high-wire comeback act against No. 10 USC. The Gators looked like a team whose season was ending momentarily, but Florida saved one match point in Game 4 and rallied in the fifth as well to stay alive, 25-23, 20-25, 18-25, 26-24, 15-11, and reach the program’s first Final Four since 2003, the year Florida finished runner up to USC.
USC had one look at the contest, leading 24-23 in Game 4. But Florida went to Shainah Joseph on the right side for the first-ball side. It was one of her 15 kills, as the senior right side proved valuable on a day Florida wasn’t at its best. Khalia Lanier (26 kills, .383) was having her way against the Florida defense, while Carli Snyder was not her normal self through the first three sets. She found her stride in Game 4 though, finishing with 11 kills and 18 digs. Florida’s middles in Rhamat Alhassan (14 kills, .423) and Rachael Kramer (11 kills, .476) is what hurt USC the most.
The chance to finish Florida in four didn’t seem to bother USC, which was up 3-0 and 9-5 in Game 5. Florida wasn’t done, going on a 6-0 run and completely turning the fifth set around. Snyder ripped an ace and the Gators were up 14-11 and essentially on their way to Kansas City.
“We have been fortunate to be a part of some amazing regional finals and this one goes up there with all of them,” Florida coach Mary Wise said. “It’s so typical to play a team with an elite player and Lanier was certainly that and then some. Obviously, we didn’t have an answer. This match we were able to think about things we used all season. Whether it was going against (Leah) Edmond at Kentucky or we talked about some of the better servers, but there are players in the SEC that we played against that helped us win this match.”
With the Gators’ spot clinched, they would either have a rematch with Texas from August, or take on defending National Champion Stanford in the semifinals.
Stanford’s size bothered the Texas pin hitters in last year’s finals. It wasn’t a total repeat from last year, but not far off either as Stanford swept, 25-21, 25-21, 25-21. Some of the numbers for Texas weren’t bad, but the Longhorns didn’t pass consistently enough to pressure Stanford. Ebony Nwanebu was the most effective, with 8 kills and hitting .429. Micaya White led Texas with 10 kills, hitting .226. But the Longhorns had no way to slow Kat Plummer (19 kills, .304) and Audriana Fitzmorris (10 kills, .391). Stanford hit .304 as a team and out-blocked Texas, 8-5.
“Congratulations to Texas. I thought they came out prepared and did a really nice job of attacking us, especially early,” Stanford coach Kevin Hambly said. “I like the composure we showed early with being down 5-0. They continued to bring it and fight. They are certainly a really physical and really talented team. It is a nice win for us. We are excited to move on and get to go to Kansas City. It has been our goal all season and we haven’t been shy about that.”
On the other side of the bracket, Nebraska did advance over Kentucky but not without some late-developing intrigue.
Kentucky has been the comeback ‘Cats this postseason, rallying past Western Kentucky after being down 0-2 and coming back on BYU after trailing 1-2. So when Kentucky clawed out a close third set and was toe-to-toe with Nebraska late in Game 4, the feeling was very real.
Nebraska doesn’t want to go five with this Kentucky bunch.
Tied at 19, Nebraska went up 21-19 on a Mikaela Foecke kill followed by a block from Bri Holman and Jazz Sweet. Sweet’s kill gave the Huskers match point at 24-21 and it ended two points later. Foecke was lights-out, leading Nebraska with 18 kills and hitting .375. Edmond paced Kentucky with 20 kills, hitting .208.
Nebraska is the only team to beat Penn State this season and they’ll meet in the other semifinal after the Nittany Lions swept Michigan State, 25-23, 25-13, 28-26. It was the third meeting between the Big Ten foes and Penn State ended the year 3-0 against the Spartans. Autumn Bailey was clutch for Michigan State, posting 18 kills and hitting .333. Penn State did a good job on everyone else not named Megan Tompkins, who had 5 kills and hit .417, but the Spartans had a .149 clip overall as a team.
Michigan State did a great job on Haleigh Washington, who had 5 kills and hit just .176. Simone Lee (12 kills, .281), Heidi Thelen (9 kills, .643) and Tori Gorell (4 kills, .571) had enough though to help Penn State get back to the Final Four for the first time since 2014.
“We had three great matches with them this year,” Penn State coach Russ Rose said. “We have great respect for Michigan State and we’re excited about the results of the match.”