Welcome Louisville, Pitt, Wisconsin, Nebraska to the ACC-Big Ten NCAA volleyball final four


Nebraska celebrates beating Texas/Matt Smith photo

The prevailing thought throughout this season was that the ACC and Big Ten were the best conferences.

Saturday they more or less proved it as the top two teams from each league moved on to the NCAA Division I Women’s Volleyball Championship.

And now, on Thursday, the first-place team from the ACC, top-seeded and unbeaten Louisville, will play the champion of the Big Ten, fourth-seeded Wisconsin in one semifinal, while the second-place teams from both conferences square off in the other, third-seeded Pittsburgh and 10th-seeded Nebraska.

The lineup on ESPN:
7 p.m. Eastern Thursday, Louisville (32-0) vs. Wisconsin (29-3)
9:30 p.m., Pitt (30-3) vs. Nebraska (25-7)

Louisville and Pitt are the first ACC teams to advance to the national semifinals since 2011, when Florida State became the only other conference team to make it that far.

Wisconsin has never won the title, but is headed back to the semis for the fifth time in program history and third year in a row.

Nebraska, which won it all in 1995, 2000, 2006, 2015, and 2017, also played in the 2018 national-title match. The Huskers crashed the party by upsetting No. 2 Texas on its homecourt.

“It’s a fun group of girls to be around,” Nebraska fifth-year senior Lauren Stivrins said, “and clearly we’re on to something great.”

Nebraska’s Madi Kubik hits against Texas/Matt Smith photo

Huskers dominate

Nebraska overpowered Texas (27-2) 25-23, 23-25, 25-21 before 5,080, the largest volleyball crowd in the history of Austin’s Gregory Gym. 

“The last couple of years we’ve come up short and not played great in the final game,” senior setter Nicklin Hames said. “Everyone stepped up. And it wasn’t perfect, but it was our way and we had each other’s backs and we out-hearted and out-schemed them.”

Madi Kubik and Ally Batenhorst led Nebraska with 15 kills each. Kubik, who hit .041, had an assist, an ace, and five digs. Batenhorst had two errors in 32 attacks to hit .406 and had two blocks and two digs. Lindsay Krause, celebrating her birthday, had 13 kills with two errors in 22 attacks to hit .500 and had five blocks and four digs. 

Kayla Caffrey had seven kills and four blocks and Stivrins had four kills and five blocks. 

“This team has been through the ringer through trial and error and a lot of things that didn’t go our way,” Stivrins said. “But all of it has led us to where we are and we’ve grown to where I don’t even know.”

Lexi Rodriguez had 20 kills, four assists and an assist, and Nicklin Hames had three kills in as many tries, 43 assists, two blocks, and 13 digs. Her team hit .259. Keonilei Akana had a career-high seven aces, four digs and an assist.

“I knew we would have a chance in this tournament because of the preparation and the teams we had to play and the level we had to play at (in the Big Ten),” said Nebraska coach John Cook, who sat at the postmatch news conference more or less drenched from a locker-room water dousing. 

“It’s been a grind this year and it’s been really good volleyball.”

Nebraska is back into the national semifinals for the 16th time and fifth in seven years.

Texas, which hit .250, got 20 kills apiece from Logan Eggleston and Skylar Fields. Their teammates combined for nine kills.

Eggleston had an assist, two blocks, and 10 digs. Fields had five errors in 45 attacks and hit .333 and had an assist three blocks and four digs. 

One of Eggleston’s errors came in the fourth set when the official called her for a throw. Her kill was negated and instead Nebraska had a 16-12 lead during an 8-0 run from which Texas never recovered.

“They said I caught and threw the ball. I’ve been doing that the whole season,” a teary Eggleston said. “That one wasn’t much different, but, hey, you can’t change it.”

Brionne Butler had four kills and eight blocks and Asjia O’Neal had two kills, an ace, five blocks, and three digs. Texas has six aces and 4 errors, while Nebraska had nine aces and eight errors.

“They clearly won the serve-and-pass game,” said Texas coach Jerritt Elliott, whose team lost in last spring’s NCAA title match to Kentucky.

Louisville keeps rolling

At least one ACC team was going to advance when the Cardinals played Georgia Tech (26-6).

Louisville, which swept the Yellow Jackets twice in the regular season, won 25-18, 21-25, 25-21, 25-20.

Claire Chaussee led Louisville with 18 kills as she hit .348 after having two errors in 46 attacks. She had two blocks and two digs. Anna DeBeer had 14 kills, an ace, three blocks, and 21 digs. Anna Stevenson had 13 kills, hit .391, and had two digs and 10 blocks, three solo. Amaya Tillman had six kills with one error in 16 attacks, a dig, and seven blocks, one solo.

Aiko Jones had three kills but hit negative .143 to go with four blocks and three digs. Elena Scott had 19 digs, two assists, and an ace, and Tori Dilfer had a kills, 49 assists, two aces, four blocks and seven digs. Her team hit .217.

“I’m just insanely proud of this team,” Louisville coach Dani Busbooom Kelly said. “People don’t realize how hard it is to make it to the final four, especially when you have all the pressure and you’re supposed to make it there, that’s even tougher in my opinion.”

Kelly won titles both as a player and assistant coach at Nebraska.

Georgia Tech, which hit .152, had 55 kills and 27 of them came from Mariana Brambilla. She had 27 kills, a solo block, and 16 digs. Bianca Bertolino had 10 kills and 10 digs.

Erin Moss had six kills, a dig and two blocks, one solo. Breland Morrissette had four kills, an assist, three blocks, and a dig. ACC player of the year Julia Bergmann was not at her best as she had four kills with 10 errors in 33 attacks to hit minus .182. She had four assists, an ace four blocks, and 20 digs. Matti McKissock had four kills in six errorless tries, 42 assists, three blocks, and 10 digs. Paola Pimental had 14 digs, five assists and an ace.

Pitt breaks new ground

Pittsburgh beat the Big Ten’s Purdue (26-7) 25-20, 28-30, 25-20, 25-15 as it became the school’s first women’s team in any sport to reach a national semifinal.

“We’ve dreamed of this since we’ve gotten together this year and it just feels amazing to be here,” Pitt coach Dan Fisher said. “I’m really proud of this team and excited to go to Columbus.”

Pitt, which tied with Miami for second place in the ACC, hit .311. Leketor Member-Meneh led with 21 kills and hit .383 after having three errors in 47 attacks. She had an assist, three aces, nine digs, and two blocks, one solo.

Serena Gray had 14 kills in 24 errorless swings to hit .583 and had two assists, an ace, two digs, and four blocks, two solo. Rachel Fairbanks had 10 kills with two errors in 17 attacks to hit .471 and had 28 assists, a block, and eight digs. Chiamaka Nwokolo had eight kills, hit .375, and had an assist and two blocks. Ashley Browske had 19 digs and two assists. Kayla Lund had five kills and hit negative .115 but had three assists, a block, and 11 digs.

Purdue, which had it most victories since 2011, lived life on the edge in this tournament. The Boilermakers swept Illinois State in the first round, but then had to come back after losing the first two sets to beat Dayton. Thursday, they had to rally again to beat BYU in five. 

Purdue, which hit .156, got 16 kills from Caitlyn Newton, who hit .107. She had four aces and four digs. Raven Colvin had 10 kills, an assist and three digs, one solo. Grace Cleveland had nine kills, two aces, three blocks and a dig. Jael Johnson had eight kills with two errors in 11 swings and three blocks. Emma Ellis had six kills, three blocks and two digs. Hayley Bush had no kills but 39 assists, 14 digs, and two blocks, one solo. Jena Otec had 25 digs and an assist.

“All credit to Pitt. Pitt just put on an absolute clinic today on all sides of the ball,” Purdue coach Dave Shondell said. “We had a hard time keeping up with them.”

Wisconsin makes it 3 for 3

The Badgers lost in the national-championship match to Stanford in 2019. Last spring, they lost to Texas in the national semifinals. Now they get another crack after their 25-18, 26-24, 25-22 victory over Minnesota (22-9). 

Dana Rettke led with 15 kills and hit .520 after having two errors in 25 attacks. She was errorless in her first 21 swings. Rettke also had an ace and four blocks.

Devyn Robinson had 11 kills with two errors in 23 attacks and six blocks. Grace Loberg had eight kills and a block, Jade Demos had seven kills and six digs, and Anna Smrek had five kills, four blocks, and three digs. 

Sydney Hilley had 43 assists, an ace, four blocks, and 12 digs. Lauren Barnes had 14 digs, three assistss, and two aces.

“It was a battle out there,” Wisconsin coach Kelly Sheffield said. “I thought we were really good at the end of sets. I thought we made some great plays. I thought it was a balanced effort and the three up here (Hilley, Rettke and Robinson) I thought were really big, but they weren’t the only three that were really big. 

“I thought we all played our part and we’re excited that we’re still playing. I’m excited that we get to keep coaching these guys.”

Wisconsin, which has swept its last five matches, hit .258.

“I think a lot of the sets could have gone either way, I mean we were in the red zone with them in every set,” said Hilley, whose team won its ninth in a row. “We just did a really good job in closing out in the high-pressure situations and just executing when the game was on the line.

Wisconsin beat Minnesota for the third time this season. The Badgers swept their first meeting and then won in five. 

Minnesota’s Airi Miyabe had 13 kills and four digs and Big Ten player of the year Stephanie Samedy had 12 kills, two aces, two blocks, and seven digs. Jenna Wenaas had eight kills and 11 digs, and Melani Shaffmaster had a kills, 30 assists, three blocks, and seven digs. Her team hit .193.

“The outcome didn’t go our way but I’m still proud of how we competed tonight,” Minnesota coach Hugh McCutcheon said. “One thing that needs to be celebrated is the career of Stephanie Samedy. She’s just such a special player and person. I can’t tell you how much of a joy it was to coach her and watch her develop into who she is today.”

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