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And Then There Were None

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How did the Big Ten's best teams, Nebraska and Minnesota, both fall short in the Final Four?

Well, this isn't the piece that I wanted (or expected) to write today, as both Big Ten teams still remaining in the tournament fell to lower-seeded challengers from the Big 12 and Pac-12. Unfortunately, this is the piece I get to write, so let's get to it.

#2 Minnesota vs. #6 Stanford

So, Stanford is tall. If you watched this match, that probably struck you immediately--not only do they have a player who is 6'8", but they also have two players at 6'6", two who are 6'4" and two at 6'3". So, you know. They've got some height to work with. While there is more to blocking than just height, it certainly doesn't hurt matters, and unfortunately for Minnesota, Stanford put together the whole blocking package last night. The Gophers looked flustered in the first set, yet managed to keep it close with some great defense, ultimately losing 26-24. But Stanford's block really got going in the second, and shut down Minnesota's attack. At the end of the second set, Stanford had 11 blocks to Minnesota's two for the match. The Trees cruised to a 25-19 win, taking a 2-0 lead into the break.

But Minnesota wasn't done yet, and Coach Hugh McCutcheon rallied the troops and an energized Gopher squad took the court in the third. Stanford again put up an early lead, but this time, it didn't last. Improved blocking leveled the score, and the Gophers hung on to win several of the match's epic rallies. Minnesota stayed alive with a 22-25 win.

Alas, it was not to be. In the fourth, Stanford established a lead of about three points that Minnesota simply could not erase, though they managed to tie it at 21, giving them a real shot at forcing a fifth set. But for one of the only times this season, Minnesota just didn't have enough left in the tank, and fell 25-22. They end the season with a 29-5 record, including an undefeated season at home.

On the match, Minnesota had 55 kills, 73 digs, and 13.5 blocks (nearly all of the blocks, remember, coming in the third and fourth sets.) By comparison, Stanford star Inky Ananaku had nine blocks of her own. The defense of each team showed in the hitting numbers, as Stanford hit only .188 and Minnesota only .149. Depressingly for non-Stanford fans, the Trees are pretty much entirely freshmen, meaning any Big Ten team hoping to win an NC in the next few years will probably face these guys again.

#1 Nebraska vs. #4 Texas

It had to be Texas, didn't it? Ugh, of course it did. After sweeping the Longhorns the last two times they met (in last year's national championship match and in early-season play this year), Texas finally got sweet revenge on the Huskers. The Longhorns played inspired volleyball, clearly feeling it. In contrast, the Huskers looked uncharacteristically sloppy, and the nerves that seemed to be erased last weekend while decimating Washington made a poorly timed reappearance. Tight, nervous, volleyball won't get you far in a semifinal, as the Huskers quickly found out. Texas raced to a 25-18 win in the first set, and if a Husker fan tells you that didn't make him or her a little nervous, they're lying.

The Huskers settled down slightly in the second set, and made for a more competitive set, though one they still lost, 25-23. But adjustments during the break proved insufficient, and the Huskers still couldn't slow Texas, losing in the third set 25-21 in a disappointing sweep.

For the Huskers, it was an uncharacteristic match in nearly every way. Serving, which is usually a strength for this Nebraska team, was inconsistent, as numerous serves sailed long, awarding Texas free points. Errors in the rest of the match were also extremely lopsided, with Nebraska's 21 hitting errors to Texas' (impressive) eight. Obviously, this was not a recipe for success. The Huskers also struggled defensively, a rare lapse for a team that usually poses one of the stiffest defenses in the country. Texas was able to hit .321 on the suddenly hapless Huskers, while the Longhorns held Nebraska to only .182.

Coach John Cook attributed the loss to tightness: "I think we were just really pressing tonight," he said. "And then once we sensed that Texas was playing really well, we were having a hard time stopping them, I mean, I think, we're the best defensive team in the country. And we let them hit .321 tonight. So just when we couldn't stop them we started pressing a little bit trying harder and that's why you saw those types of plays. I saw stuff I haven't seen all year tonight. But that's what happens in a match like this sometimes. And, of course, we've seen it happen to other teams. But again, Texas deserves a lot of credit."

And so the bid to repeat as National Champions for the first time in school history fell short, and to a team that most Nebraskans hate losing to the most. But for most, presumably including the players, the big sting from this one is not losing in the Final Four (no real shame in that), or to Texas (who is after all, an excellent team)--it's from performing so far below the level that they were capable of, and that they displayed for most of the season. The Huskers finish the season 31-3.

A Few Good Things

Today, Sarah Wilhite of Minnesota was announced as the AVCA Player of the Year, another award on top of her Big Ten Player of the Year honors. Wilhite, a senior, gave it her all her senior season. She finished with 537 kills for the season, as well as 327 digs, and 29 aces. She had a .288 hitting average, and hit over .300 19 times (over half of her matches) this season. Even with the Gophers' loss, Wilhite ended on a high note, scooping up her 13th double-double of the season with 25 kills and 13 digs.

Congratulations to Sarah Wilhite! You were terrible to play against this year!

The Big Ten is still the best conference in college volleyball. Yes, the "early" exit of Nebraska and Minnesota (and to a slightly lesser extent, Wisconsin) was disappointing--there really was no reason that there shouldn't have been at least one of those teams in the final--this is still the top conference in the sport. Weekend after weekend, we fans were treated to incredible, high-level, high-stakes volleyball from a bevy of Top 25 teams. 2016 was an incredible season. It didn't end the way we wanted, but dang, it was a fun ride while it lasted.

Go Stanford.