Texas sweeps Nebraska for 2nd straight NCAA volleyball title

TAMPA, Fla. – In 2009, here in this same arena, Texas women’s volleyball lost one of its most heartbreaking matches: falling in the national championship after blowing a 2-0 lead that longtime coach Jerritt Elliott still calls the -your painful defeat.

On Sunday, in the first game of the NCAA volleyball championship televised on ABC, the Longhorns and Elliott replaced that bad memory with a much happier one. Texas repeated as national champions and did something no team had done before in NCAA women’s volleyball history: win back-to-back titles by sweeping.

The No. 2-seeded Longhorns did so by knocking off three No. 1 seeds in succession: Stanford in the regional final, Wisconsin in the national semifinals and Nebraska in the final. The Longhorns won 25-22, 25-14, 25-11 on Sunday; last year they swept Louisville in the title game.

Last season, Texas essentially carried the mantle of the best team in the country all the way through the championship game. This year, as freshman Ella Swindle learned the ropes, Texas had a few more bumps in the road early on, including a season-opening loss at Long Beach State on Aug. 25.

“We were really on the wrestling bus going 5-3,” Elliott said of Texas’ Sept. 15 record after a home loss to Washington State. “We just asked our kids to stay in the process, trust each other, work hard. We’ve been through a lot of ups and downs, a lot of tears, things we’ve been trying to figure out. And magically, it just came together.”

Nebraska coach John Cook noted the Longhorns were one point away from a regional semifinal loss to Tennessee, but rallied to win that one and then beat three No. 1 seeds.

“You think, ‘It’s destiny, it’s ours,'” Cook said of how coming off a near defeat can motivate a team. “And I think Texas experienced that. Sometimes you go through those matches that feel like whatever that “extra” thing is. Like, ‘Hey, it doesn’t matter what happens, we don’t lose.'”

By Sunday, there was no doubt who the best team was: the Longhorns again. Besides at setter, Texas had some key experienced players, including fifth-year Asjia O’Neal, who got her fifth service ace of the afternoon on match point to start Texas’ celebration.

Madison Skinner, who helped lead Kentucky to its first SEC volleyball title in the COVID-postponed 2020 championship, won her third NCAA title overall as she won the last two since transferring to Texas. She was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player after 18 kills in the semifinal win over Pittsburgh and 16 against Nebraska in the final. Skinner, O’Neill and Swindle were each on the all-tournament team.

A record crowd of 19,727 at Amalie Arena watched Texas take the second set victory with a serving spectacular while the Longhorns never gave the Huskers a chance to rally. O’Neill scored 10 straight points in an 11-0 run in the second set that was the turning point after a tense first set in which the Longhorns remained unfazed despite some arguments with the officials.

O’Neal, the daughter of longtime NBA player Jermaine O’Neal, has undergone two open-heart surgeries. She said she doesn’t think much about her medical history, except when she needs extra motivation to train and remember how much she has gone through to be the player she is.

During the serve that took over the match, O’Neill couldn’t contain his smile.

“Volleyball is a huge game of momentum,” she said. “On that run, I could totally feel the momentum shift to our side. We played with so much confidence and joy. I was smiling because I was so happy with how we felt. You just feel it. I felt we were going to win the game.”

Texas, which had 11 service aces in the semifinal against Wisconsin, had 12 against Nebraska. That was a big part of the reason Cook said the Huskers never got into a rhythm. Nebraska hit just .013 for the game, with almost as many errors (19) as kills (20).

That said, the Huskers, who played in the program’s 11th championship game, have no seniors. Four freshmen played key roles in Nebraska’s 33-2 season, and the five-time national champions will be a force to be reckoned with again next season.

The Longhorns won their fourth NCAA title and fifth national championship overall, counting one in the AIAW era. Their other NCAA titles were in 2012 under Elliott and in 1988 under Mick Haley, who also coached the 1981 AIAW champions. This is Texas’ last year in the Big 12; next season the Longhorns move to the SEC.

In 2009, Amalie Arena had a different name, but it is the same building that hosted the volleyball championship that year. Texas took a 2-0 lead over defending champion Penn State, then in the midst of one of the best streaks in volleyball history.

But Texas couldn’t close out the title and lost a comeback, 16-14 in the fifth set to the Nittany Lions. It was the senior year of one of Texas’ biggest all-time stars, Destinee Hooker, who had 34 kills in the final and was the championship’s Most Outstanding Player despite the loss. Penn State finished 38-0 for the second straight season, and Elliott stuck with that loss until winning his first title with the Longhorns in 2012.

On Sunday, Texas never came close to blowing the lead, making Tampa a place Elliott and Longhorns fans will always think fondly of.

“That was probably one of the most epic volleyball matches of all time,” Elliott said of the 2009 final, which featured a host of future Olympians, including Hooker. “There was a lot of sting with it. But I’m just happy for everybody that’s a part of this Longhorn family.”

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