Sunday, December 15, 2013

NCAA | Washington volleyball reaches Final Four with heart-stopping victory over USC

Huskies’ Krista Vansant has just what UW needed:  the match of a lifetime
#3 Washington def. #6 USC 3-2 (26-228, 23-25, 25-22, 25-18, 17-15)
  • #12 Wisconsin vs. #1 Texas | December 19 | 4:30 PM |Key Arena (NCAA Semifinal)
  • #2 Penn State vs. #3 Washington | December 19 | 6:30 PM |Key Arena (NCAA Semifinal)

It took the match of her career to defeat her opponent’s career match. But in the end, Krista Vansant’s all-around skills and refusal to fold made the difference.

#3 seed Washington came off the mat, rose from losing the first two sets on #6 USC’s home court to earn a spot in its first Final Four since 2006. The Huskies will be coming home, as Seattle hosts its first-ever volleyball Championship at Key Arena.
Washington's Kaleigh Nelson (6) and Lianna Sybeldon (10, in white), block an attack by USC's Sara Shaw (10, in black)
-Associated Press photo by Alex Gallardo

It took Vansant’s heroic night—38 kills on a mind-boggling 81 swings—to overcome an equally amazing night from USC’s Ebony Nwanebu. The freshman Trojan opposite had 30 kills of her own and not a single error on 53 attacks. The difference in the match was simply that Vansant plays all six rotations, while Nwanebu plays only the front row.

Trailing two sets to one, Washington built a 9-6 lead as Vansant rotated to the front. After two sensational Jenna Orlandini digs, Vansant put away a cross-court winner. A powerful Lianna Sybeldon quick made it 11-7 Huskies, and the next ten UW kills in a row went to Vansant. Front row, back row, left side, right side, setters Jenni Nogueras and Katy Beals found Vansant. The string was broken only at set point, when Cassie Strickland—who finished with 11 kills on 26 attempts—pounded a smart attack off the USC block, setting up the deciding fifth set.

But the night didn’t start well for Washington.

The Huskies let set one slip away, giving up three consecutive set points by committing three straight errors. Kylin Muñoz struggled mightily, sending several cross-court attacks right at USC All-American libero Hagglund, who had an extraordinary match herself, recording 30 digs. USC’s final 6-2 run included four Huskies’ errors and two Strickland kills. Strickland, in fact, was UW’s best first set weapon, with six kills and just one error.

When USC found success attacking the right in the first set, it poured in on from that side in the second. In particular, Nwanebu attacked at will over Strickland, finishing the first two sets with 16 kills and no errors on 25 attacks (.640). No other Trojan had more than 4 kills at that point. The Huskies finished the first two sets hitting just .192, thanks in large part to 16 hitting errors, including 4 each from Vansant and Kaleigh Nelson.

But in the third set, the errors all but disappeared. Washington coach Jim McLaughlin made an important tactical decision, changing his rotation to allow Vansant to match up against Nwanebu. Vansant responded with 7 kills, even as Nwanebu added 5 more of her own—still without an error. The difference was USC’s normally outstanding hitter Samantha Bricio, who all but melted in the set, blasting balls out of bounds, and committing multiple service errors.

After Vansant’s breakout fourth set, the final frame didn’t start well for Washington. Nwanebu continued her perfection, while Bricio finally started connecting, bringing USC to 4-2 and a Washington timeout. By now, however, Bricio seemed distracted and the Trojans looked tight. With USC leading 7-6, Melanie Wade hit a back row attack for a crucial point—an impressive feat for a middle who plays back row only when she serves. And, in the end, Wade’s serving would make all the difference.

Wade rotated back to the service line at 15-15, after UW escaped match point when USC’s Elise Ruddins hit a cross-court attack bare inches out of bounds. As she has all season, senior Gabbi Parker substituted for Strickland on the front line, a move that paid off when Parker ended a furious rally with a left side kill off Trojan blockers' hands.

With UW now leading 16-15, a USC timeout failed to accomplish a prime objective: it did not ice Wade. The sophomore middle calmly delivered a hard, flat serve to Bricio, and when the Trojans couldn’t convert, it again opened the door for Parker, whose final swing went off the block and onto the floor for the Huskies’ win.

Conventional wisdom says good teams have a tough time beating other good teams three times in a season. USC might have won if Bricio was on her game, but UW had a lot to do with keeping her off of it, just as they did when they beat Southern Cal in Seattle earlier this season. All night, Washington relentlessly forced Bricio to pass serves, then anticipated her swings with a solid block and good defense.

In the end, however, it was Vansant—and her setters’ willingness to find her—that marked this win. 81 swings? Unreal. 38 kills? Extraordinary. But her offense wasn’t the whole story. Remember Hagglund’s impressive 30 digs for USC? A great number, sure. But guess who else had 30?

That’s right, Vansant.

  • Vansant, Strickland and Sybeldon joined Nwanebu, Hagglund, Kansas’ Catherine Carmichael and BYU’s Alexa Gray on the All-Regional team.
  • USC’s Alexis Olgard of Spokane played the entire match after sitting out USC’s Friday victory over BYU. ESPN reported that the senior middle—who tallied 9 kills and no errors on 15 attacks (.600)—has a stress fracture in her foot.


  1. Game replay

  2. My goodness!! Beating USC 3 times in a year. You play this level and this time of a year, it is all about the mental toughness. Huskies certainly is peaking and maturing at a perfect timing.
    It is so amazing and unbelievable that Gabbi has become our secret weapon for finishing off so many tough matches like this one.

  3. Although the Huskies made numerous uncharacteristic errors in the first two sets, it was evident that they nonetheless lost each set by a slim margin. Thus, there seemed to be some hope. Then, USC began to feel the pressure and even Nwanebu's hitting percentage began to drop a bit. It all ended well. For the Huskies. Great match to be a Huskie fan. Or Player!!
    Question: In the 5th set, near the end, Bricio shanked out of bounds to her left a serve/receive. On the very next play, Bricio was again on the back line, but received a set near the net and jumped from about 4 feet for a kill/slam. Why was that not a fault because she killed from inside the 3 meter mark?
    Last question: Was Nwanebu's substitution near the end of the 5th set out of the ordinary rotation? She seemed a bit upset by the substitution. Her Sub didn't enter to serve but rather to replace Nwanebu on the front line. Or so it seemed to me. Maybe Coach Mick made a miscue, based on the relative performances of those two players.
    You two do a great job. I am new to your site, and your writing is great. Also, the article to which you linked for us readers is especially well done of a UW Volleyball article. Thanks

  4. Wow just wow, what a nail biter. I had given up on them after set two. They didn't have an answer for nwanebu the entire match. Had she been a 6 position player we would have been finished. We have to figure out how to block those tall quick OH's. PS is going to be a big challenge but I think these ladies have found a way to win and have a great shot. We'll be there in the nosebleed seats to see it!

  5. If Nwanebu played 6 positions we would have won in 3.
    She is obviously a liability in the back row.
    There is a reason she is substituted out.
    The argument that they would have won is doesn't make sense.


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