The quest for Columbus continued last weekend, and as the weekend started, the Big Ten still had six teams in contention. Heading into the Final Four...there are only two. What happened? A whole lot of excellent volleyball, epic matches, and a couple of B1G-on-B1G games that ensured elimination. Read on to find out how the weekend went down!
Third Round Matches
#1 Nebraska vs #16 Penn State
Boy howdy... this was a doozy. Facing each other for the third time this season, there was no way that this matchup of volleyball titans wasn't going to be exciting. Nebraska, defending national champions with everything on the line. PSU, far better than its seeding and with nothing to lose and relatively low expectations. Nebraska won the previous two matchups this season, but early on in this one, it looked certain that Penn State was going to be exacting some sweet revenge. In front of a disappointed crowd in Lincoln, Penn State had its way with the Huskers, going on late runs in the first two sets to win 25-23 and 25-23. They appeared poised to administer the final dagger with two match points in the third set. But then...Amber Rolfzen happened. Dangling at the end of a 24-22 rope, Rolfzen hit a kill to save one match point. But there was still one point left. PSU's Simone Lee prepared the kill, but was blocked by Amber Rolfzen and Kelly Hunter to tie the match at 24. Next, it was Mikaela Foeke's turn (aka the best thing to come out of Iowa ever) to play hero. Tied on the next rally, Justine Wong-Orantes dug Lee's shot, and Foeke blasted a kill. Now poised for the set point, Foeke struck again, handing the Huskers the critical third set. This invigorated the Huskers, and took a lot of air out of Penn State. "We didn't close the deal, and we lost a lot of our energy after that," PSU coach Russ Rose said after the match. The Huskers took the fourth 25-19, and cruised in the fifth to win 15-6.
It was an unreal match. I unfortunately couldn't go, in spite of having tickets, due to a prior commitment made before I knew the match would be at 11 am. (Many others found creative ways to watch anyway.) I was able to tune in with only a few points remaining in the third set. I gave up on the Huskers, disappointed they were going to get bounced from the tournament in a sweep. But luckily, the Huskers had a great deal more faith in themselves. Even Husker coach John Cook, who has seen just about everything, wasn't quite sure what to make of what he had witnessed: "In some ways, I was just in awe of watching the whole thing, like a spectator," he said later.
I'm still kind of in awe.
#2 Minnesota vs. #15 Missouri
Nine-letter Minnesota was victorious over 8-letter Missouri on Friday in a four set match that, for the most part, wasn't particularly close. In spite of being co-champions of the SEC, Missouri had few answers for the Gophers' fast and dominant offense, and Minnesota took the first set 25-15. To their credit, the Tigers regrouped and took advantage of a somewhat sloppy performance in the second set by the Gophers, winning 21-25. But Minnesota quickly returned to form following the break, and took the last two sets 25-19 and 25-14 to advance to the Elite Eight.
#3 Wisconsin vs. Ohio State
The second B1G on B1G game was just as much of a doozy as the first one. Ohio State, motivated by the tantalizing prospect of playing the final weekend of the tournament in Columbus, brought their A-game to the tournament, and after knocking off Kansas State last week, gave the Badgers everything they could handle in a five-set festival of great volleyball. The first set appeared to go according to script, with the Badgers rolling to a comfortable 25-15 win. But then, the match got really interesting. In front of a restless crowd in Madison, the Buckeyes surged back to take a 22-25 win in the second, and then 29-31 victory in the hotly contested third set. The Badgers clawed back in the all-important fourth set, posting a 25-22 victory. The fifth set was just as close, but Wisconsin barely got the better of the Buckeyes with a 15-13 win, crushing OSU dreams of a Final Four berth in Columbus and sending Wisconsin on to face Stanford.
Relive all the excitement from today's five set thriller at the Field House‼️https://t.co/MDZDEdNcLX— Wisconsin Volleyball (@BadgerVB) December 10, 2016
#12 Michigan vs. Creighton
The final Big Ten team in the third round also found itself in a five-set battle on Friday, but unfortunately for the Wolverines, they didn't emerge the better for it. Creighton, this year's Cinderella story after bouncing #5 Kansas from the tournament last weekend, once again fought long and hard (in fact, they are the first team in tournament history to open play with three consecutive five-set wins.) This match was back and forth from the get-go. The first set featured 15 ties before Michigan won 26-24. Creighton came back and won the second 25-21. But after the break, Michigan shone again, winning 25-17. But then, the Bluejays won, 25-20. Unfortunately, the Wolverines ran out of steam in the fifth, and after a 7-1 run in the middle of the set by Creighton, the Bluejays advanced to their first-ever Elite Eight with a 15-7 win.
The Elite Eight
So then there were three of an original eight Big Ten teams still in the running. The winners of this round punched their tickets to this weekend's festivities in Columbus, OH.
#1 Nebraska vs. #8 Washington
I don't know what Penn State awakened in the Huskers, but wow. After clawing back from the very edge of the abyss, the Huskers played on Saturday with seemingly renewed purpose as they blew Washington out of Lincoln in straight sets. Playing with the vigor of one who has seen their life pass before them and are now committed to living life to the fullest, the Husker squad that took the court against the Huskies looked like a new team. Picking on Washington's freshman libero all afternoon, Washington looked little like the Pac-12 champions (or the Washington teams that have derailed the Huskers in so many post-seasons past). The Huskers came out strong, winning a never-very-close first set 25-16. And then, the Huskers grew even more formidable, starting the second set 9-0 (and then 11-1) and steamrolling the Huskies 25-10. After two sets, Nebraska was hitting .509 to Washington's .018. However, Washington regrouped during the break, and the third set was much more competitive, but the Huskers took this one too, 25-21. Star of the day for Nebraska was Andie Malloy, a graduate transfer from Baylor who wasn't here for last season's championship run and apparently would like to go on one of her own. She had 15 kills and hit .500.
Next up: Wouldn't you know it, the Huskers next face their old nemesis, #4 Texas. One of our fine commenters pointed out on the last article that the Huskers path to the championship this year is comprised of historically significant rivalries and roadblocks: Penn State, Washington, and Texas are all integral parts of Husker volleyball history. Although no longer in the same conference, Nebraska and Texas still see each other frequently: the Huskers swept the Longhorns in early season play this year, and, probably vivid in the memories of Longhorn players, swept them in last year's NCAA Championship match. The Longhorns survived a serious upset bid by BYU (who was leading 10-5 in the fifth set of their third round match), so this is a team that cannot be counted out until the final point is played. If you've ever met a Husker fan, you know we hate Texas, by virtue of the whole "destroying our conference" thing, and also because of decades of volleyball rivalry. You can now add to their crimes knocking Creighton out in the regional final and thus depriving the state of Nebraska of an in-state Final Four matchup that I can safely guarantee will never happen to the Cornhusker State in any other sport. Boo Texas. This could be a great one--both teams will be desperate to make it back to the finals, and dispatch their old rival in the process.
Watch it: Thursday, December 15 at 9:30 pm (ET) on ESPN. That's right--we're at a place in the tourney where you can actually watch these games! Woohoo! (Ed. Note: The NCAA has tweeted that these matches will be televised on ESPN. The NCAA website still, incorrectly, says they are on ESPN2, because, NCAA gonna NCAA. I'm assuming the tweet is correct.)
#2 Minnesota vs. #10 UCLA
Like Nebraska, Minnesota enjoyed a relatively drama-free win over a Pac-12 opponent, sweeping UCLA on its way to Columbus. Though UCLA overwhelmed Minnesota early, jumping out to a 6-0 lead, the Gophers rallied, hanging on for a narrow 25-23 victory. But the Gophers (and superstar Sarah Wilhite) really hit their stride in the second set, winning 25-20. The Bruins didn't go quietly, and the third set was hotly contested, but Minnesota eventually sent UCLA back to sunny California with a 25-22 win. With that, the Gophers finished 2016 unbeaten at home, and they have not lost on their home court in more than two years. (Ed. note: I'm very glad the final weekend is not in Minneapolis.)
Next up: The Gophers get the final Pac-12 team still standing when they face the #6 Trees of Stanford, which will be no small task. Minnesota and Stanford met in the second match of the season, with the Cardinal winning 3-1. Can the Gophers get their revenge? Read more about Minnesota's next opponent in the recap of Wisconsin's match below.
Watch it: Thursday, December 15 at 7:00 pm (ET) on ESPN. Guess we know how you should be spending your Thursday night, don't we? (Ed. Note: The NCAA has tweeted that these matches will be televised on ESPN. The NCAA website still, incorrectly, says they are on ESPN2, because, NCAA gonna NCAA. I'm assuming the tweet is correct.)
Watch highlights from last night's win over and over again.— Minnesota Volleyball (@GopherVBall) December 11, 2016
#3 Wisconsin vs. #6 Stanford
This was, without a doubt, a heartbreaker of a loss for Wisconsin. The goal for this team was a National Championship, and it seemed within reach after spending the season jockeying with Nebraska and Minnesota among the top three spots in college volleyball, even while playing the toughest schedule in the country. Led by four fantastic seniors, including superstar Lauren Carlini, who finish with a national title match, two Elite Eights, and a Sweet Sixteen as career accomplishments, it seemed like this might be the year for Wisconsin volleyball. And early in the match, things seemed on track, as the Badgers won the first two sets 25-18 and 26-24. But Stanford came back from the break with more up their sleeve, and took both of the next sets by the score of 25-21 to force a decisive fifth set. Columbus was not to be for the Badgers, and Stanford powered past them by a score of 15-9. Coach Kelly Sheffield was blunt about the blow: "It's hard to lose a match like that," he said. "It's hard to be this close to a dream and fall short."
Whew! Quite the weekend in volleyball--Friday alone brought enough crazy for a whole post season. Tune in Thursday to watch things continue to play out and to cheer for two B1G victories (or not, if you want to be that way)!