LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Texas and Oregon each has reason to believe it is a team of destiny tonight in the NCAA women’s volleyball championship.
The third-seeded Longhorns (28-4) have earned their second title-game appearance in four years, hoping to claim their first national championship since 1998. They overcame a 2-1 deficit to beat Michigan in five sets Thursday night in the semifinals and now aim to close the deal after blowing a 2-0 lead against Penn State in the 2009 final.
Oregon (30-4) will be making its championship debut after a four-set upset victory over top-seeded Penn State in the other Thursday night semifinal. While that outcome stunned many who believed the Nittany Lions were a championship lock, the fifth-seeded Ducks always believed they could do it and are eager to continue that roll for one more game.
Texas will be squaring off against an Oregon team coming off a huge accomplishment against Penn State.
Facing a 33-2 Nittany Lions team that had lost just one set in the tournament entering Thursday’s semifinal, the Ducks shook off a 25-21, first-set loss and swept the next three — the last two in surprisingly easy fashion.
The second set marked the turning point as Oregon jumped to a 20-10 lead before Penn State rallied with a 14-4 run to tie the set. The Ducks then faced three set points before tying each time and eventually winning the last two for a 30-28 victory.
Oregon trailed just once after that.
“I think they’ve had that all along," Ducks coach Jim Moore said of his team’s poise. “They’ll do whatever it is, not just physical work. When we lost last year, they knew it wasn’t a physical thing; they knew it was an emotional, mental thing. They worked real hard. That’s the hardest thing to work on in sport."
Oregon ended up winning most statistical areas as a result. The Ducks topped the Nittany Lions in kills (63-52) and in digs (80-67) and posted six service aces and just one error.
Three Oregon players recorded double-doubles, including Liz Brenner (17 kills, 17 digs), Katherine Fischer (16, 12) and Alaina Bergsma (16, 15), who was selected the national player of the year Friday by the American Volleyball Coaches Association.
“The great thing about Thursday night is that we weren’t at our best and really didn’t play very well," said Oregon setter Haley Jacob, who had 20 digs. “There were a lot of things that we could have done much better. If we do those things much better, that’s what we need to carry over into (the championship) game."
The late finish of Thursday’s match did not allow Oregon much time to celebrate beating Penn State, which Moore considered a good thing. While this has been the Ducks’ most successful season by far, they are still a match away from achieving the destiny they have dreamed of.
“We just need to play," Moore said. “We have to take all the things they throw at us and do what we’ve done all year long, which is playing our opponent.
“We will defend them in the way we feel is the best way to defend them. We’ll attack them in a way we feel is the best way to attack them, and we’ll play hard. When the match is over, we’ll see what happens."
Texas coach Jerritt Elliott said he likes his team’s position heading into the national final.
“A lot has gone into this year," Elliott said. “I felt like in 2009 we had a great shot, in 2010 we overachieved to get here and we created standards that are great to be a part of.
“This team is in a good spot right now, I like the mentality. For them to go out and win would mean so much to me, just knowing how hard they went out and worked. ... We are going to see some adversity (against Oregon), but we are going to face it and do the things that we have done the last half of the season."
For the Longhorns, that means plenty of hitting.
Texas has won its past five matches and now gets a chance to atone for that 2009 final that slipped from their grasp.
“Being here for the third time and not being able to finish it off with a title has been kind of devastating," McNeal said. “Winning it in my senior year would be awesome."