Oregon's title run ends short of goal
LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Bailey Webster played little in Texas' previous NCAA volleyball championship game appearance three years ago but became quite experienced with the postseason as the Longhorns reached two more semifinals.
That seasoning paid off for the junior Saturday night when she helped Texas win a national championship.
Webster had 14 kills, Haley Eckerman added 12 and the third-seeded Longhorns swept Oregon for its first NCAA title since 1988. Texas won 25-11, 26-24, 25-19.
"All I remember about this match is that we did the whole thing together," said Webster, who finished with a .500 hitting percentage and four block assists and was voted the tournament's most outstanding player. "I really think we won this because we were such a team out there."
Texas (29-4) has been a recent regular at volleyball's Final Four, making its fourth appearance in five years and playing in its first title game since 2009. The Longhorns lost to Penn State in five sets after leading 2-0.
This time they took care of business for their second title in four tries, recording their third sweep in the past four matches. When it ended the Longhorns swarmed the court to celebrate, with sophomore middle blocker Khat Bell jumping on coach Jerritt Elliott's back.
"I've been in this thing a lot of times and finally we broke through," Elliott said about winning his first title as a coach. "This has been a long time coming."
But the Longhorns ended up making quick work of the Ducks by dominating the net, outblocking Oregon 15-1. Texas also outhit the Ducks .438-.202.
Leading the way was Webster, a first-team AVCA All-American outside hitter. She was injured during Texas' 2010 semifinal appearance but bounced back to be the 2011 Big 12 Conference player of the year and lead the Longhorns and enter this year's Final Four with a .519 postseason hitting percentage.
On Saturday Webster was part of a Texas effort that shut down AVCA Division I player of the year Alaina Bergsma, whose nine kills were also matched by nine errors. Many of her attempts were blocked as the Longhorns' defense keyed on her.
Liz Brenner and Katherine Fischer each had 13 kills for fifth-seeded Oregon (30-5), which made its first title-game appearance.
"I don't know what it means to Texas; I know that it hurts for us to lose it," Ducks coach Jim Moore said.
A crowd of 16,448 attended the game, the second-largest for an NCAA tournament final.
Texas beat Oregon for the third time in four meetings.
Oregon had hoped to use up-tempo offense and solid defense to put Texas in a quick hole and not allow the Longhorns' dominant hitting game to get going. That was asking a lot considering Texas led the nation in hitting percentage (.322) coming in and used it to dominate Michigan in the first and fourth sets on Thursday.
Lost in all the talk about the Longhorns' offense was their strong defense, which they showed in the opening set. Texas built a 12-4 lead behind four blocks including two each by Webster and Molly McCage.
Texas often had two defenders at the net ready for Oregon returns and at one point had almost as many blocks (seven) as Oregon points (eight).
The Longhorns quickly closed out a 25-11 win, led by Webster's five kills and three blocks.
"We all wanted it really badly, and sometimes that can get in the way of your play," Fischer said of the Ducks' first-set play.
The second set was more even, although Oregon held several small leads thanks to five kills by Fischer and three by Ariana Williams. But Texas wiped out a 17-13 deficit with two Webster kills and a block and kill by senior Sha'Dare McNeal, who finished with eight kills and four block assists.
The Longhorns tied it again at 23 as Webster scored three of the Longhorns' final four points for a 26-24 win and a two-set advantage.
"I think it was just timing the hitters and knowing their shots," McNeal said of Texas' blocking.
Having been in this position just three years ago, Texas methodically finished off Oregon in the third set.
The Longhorns' left side helped build a 9-6 lead before Webster returned to help make it 14-9. Oregon answered with three straight points to close to 14-12, but Texas closed with an 11-7 run as Webster, Bell and McCage sealed the net and Haley Eckerman added two kills down the stretch.
Sarah Palmer contributed eight digs for Texas.
Bailey said the Longhorns didn't discuss their last title game appearance, adding that their focus was on closing out the match.
"We were just positive the whole time and acting like nothing had happened before," she said. "We just took it one point at a time."
That simple approach by Texas provided a long-awaited championship.
"To me, getting to the Final Four is one of the hardest things to do in sports," Elliott said, "and to get there four out of five years says a lot about where our program is. I've talked to so many great coaches and I just said, 'What's the key?'
"They said, 'Just keep getting back to the Final Four and giving yourself a chance.'"