Fifth Set Phenoms: Huskies Make Fifth Final Four
OMAHA, Neb. – It's not the easy way, but it feels like the perfect way for Husky Volleyball. For the third match in a row, and the second time in less than twenty-four hours, Washington went the distance for a five set victory, this one coming back from an 0-2 deficit, to return to the Final Four for the fifth time in program history and the first time since 2013.
On Sunday, Washington pulled off one of the greatest comebacks in school history, coming back to beat No. 11 Louisville from down 5-11 in the fifth set. After that match, Head Coach Keegan Cook told the team that it "wasn't their moment" believing that an even greater achievement was in store.
Down two sets to none was when the moment started to arrive, slowly but surely, as the Pac-12 Champion Huskies walked down a Pittsburgh Panthers squad that yesterday had upset No. 3-seed Minnesota. After two sets where the Husky offense had to grind for every point, the Dawgs started to find their groove again and put more and more pressure on the Panthers.
After dropping sets one and two, 20-25 and 21-25, the Huskies asserted themselves with a 25-16 third set win. Washington had a big lead late in the fourth set until Pitt rallied and led as late as 22-23, but a couple key challenge reversals helped the Huskies survive and take the 26-24 win to force the fifth. From there it was all Dawgs in the fifth set, as they jumped out to a 6-1 lead and a 10-4 lead. But after coming back from a similar gap one day earlier, the Huskies wouldn't let Pitt back in it, closing out the victory, 15-9.
— Washington Volleyball (@UWVolleyball) April 19, 2021
Washington reaches the Final Four for the first time under sixth-year Head Coach Keegan Cook. This was UW's fourth Elite Eight appearance in Cook's tenure, and the Dawgs were not going to let another chance get away without showing their best.
"Disappointed in the way we started, but I've always believed in this group to take things the distance," began Cook in his opening remarks. "I was impressed with our ability to side out against a very good serving team, against a very good transition hitting team. Just really happy for our athletes. It's been a long journey. We've had a few chances to get this program back to the Final Four and this was the group to do it, so I'm thrilled for them and looking forward to spending more time with them in Omaha."
Today was the first time that matches moved inside the CHI Health Center Omaha Arena after the first three round were held in the Convention Center. The national semifinals will be in the Arena as well, this Thursday, Apr. 22, at times to be determined. Washington will go up against either No. 2-seed Kentucky or No. 7-seed Purdue.
In spite of the slow start, the Huskies wound up hitting .245 for the match compared to a .207 mark for Pittsburgh. Washington had nine aces and missed just six serves, and had a 12-10 lead in blocks.
All-Pac-12 and All-Region attackers Samantha Drechsel and Claire Hoffman each had 17 kills and Region Freshman of the Year Madi Endsley had 16 kills, a testament once again to Pac-12 Setter of the Year Ella May Powell spreading things around. Powell had 48 assists and 14 digs with a huge five blocks as well. Lauren Sanders had six blocks while Marin Grote had five kills and five blocks.
Drechsel said there were "Definitely a lot of tears." The team has now taken one step further in the tournament in each of her three seasons, from the Round of 16 in 2018 to the Elite Eight in 2019 and now the Final Four.
"It's kind of crazy when you've been in a global pandemic, and coming back to campus, trying to practice, play, still get better, when there's so much going on in the world right now," said Drechsel. "I have so much respect for my teammates and all the hard work and the focus that we've put in the past couple months. Just to see if pay off is crazy. I'm not sure if it's really hit me, the gravity of it yet, of all the hard things we've done this season, but I'm excited for what's next."
These Dawgs never stop believing ...
Thank you for believing with us!!
— Washington Volleyball (@UWVolleyball) April 19, 2021
Cook was a first-year assistant in 2013 the last time the Huskies reached the Final Four. The first three trips were in 2004-06, with UW winning the 2005 National Title. The 2013 Final Four berth was also earned with a comeback from 0-2 down, against the USC Trojans.
The Huskies improved to 7-2 in five set matches this year, and have won five in a row. This is the first time ever that the Huskies have three five-set victories in one NCAA tournament.
"It's still a little surreal right now," said Cook. "It's the greatest privilege and responsibility to coach a program of this caliber, and you have to know what's at stake and you make commitments to very talented people with big dreams, and it's your responsibility to get them there. Really happy for these kids and for all former teams."
UP NEXT: The Huskies will face the winner of No. 2 Kentucky and No. 7 Purdue, which is the final match of Regionals this evening.
SET 1: The first kill for the Huskies came from Sanders for 2-3 in the opening set. Emma Calle got an ace off the tape and Sanders and Hoffman teamed for a block for a 4-3 lead. But the Panthers answered with four in a row before missing serve for 5-7. Another three from Pitt made it 5-10. Hoffman snapped the run with her first kill and then a Pitt error made it 7-10. Drechsel landed her first kill to the far corner for 9-12. Washington had trouble judging Pitt's float serves and misplayed a couple for aces, needing their second timeout at 10-16. Down as many as eight, the Husky started to find their rhythm, with consecutive kills and then a block by Grote and Hoffman for 15-21. Another 4-0 Husky run with a Drechsel kill and a Sanders-Drechsel block followed by a big Endsley swing made it 19-22 and forced a Panthers timeout. But a Pitt kill on a UW net violation was followed by an ace for set point at 19-24. Pitt converted its second for the 20-25 win.
SET 2: Kills from Endsley and Hoffman had the Huskies at 4-5, but Pitt's serving got UW out of system again and Pitt scored three in a row for 4-8 and the Huskies took time. UW came out of it with a block and a Hoffman transition kill, then Powell fired two straight aces as the Huskies evened it back up at 8-8. A Grote rejection and a Hoffman ace put the Huskies up, 10-9, but Pitt answered back with five in a row to retake a four point lead and force UW's final timeout. UW gave away another on an error before Drechsel finally stopped the run for 11-15. But another three-straight from Pitt extended it to 12-19. Just like the first set, UW tried to make it interesting, getting five straight points to cut the gap back down to two. Calle had an ace and Hoffman and Sanders stuffed a Panther swing. More tough defense forced a couple Pitt errors and the Panthers took their last timeout at 20-22. Pitt sided out on the next rally but Hoffman connected from the right for 21-23. But again Pitt got a kill out of the middle for set point, and the Huskies had to send a free ball over on the next point and the Panthers converted for the set, 21-25.
SET 3: With their backs against the wall again, the Huskies dropped the first two points of the third set but then went on a 6-1 run to take their biggest lead of the day and force a Panthers timeout at 6-3. Hoffman, Endsley, and Drechsel all had kills in the run. The Panthers got a couple back but the Dawgs then scored another three for a 10-6 lead. Sanders and Powell teamed for a block for 12-7, and a Hoffman finish of a Powell set made it 14-8 Dawgs. Suddenly the outside hitters were finding more and more success and Grote and Sanders got their offense going as well. Hoffman lasered one from the right side and then went back and served an ace for 18-10. Another ace, from Crenshaw, made it a 10-point lead at 21-11. Two kills from Endsley brought the Dawgs to set point at 24-15 and Sanders put down a slide for the finisher, 25-16.
SET 4: Sanders and Drechsel got UW started with a couple kills for 2-1 Dawgs. Endsley knocked down an overdig for a 4-2 lead. The teams were even through ten points, with Endsley getting a kill off a Pitt net for 6-5. An Endsley kill was followed by a solo stuff block one-on-one for Powell to force a Pitt timeout at 9-6 Dawgs. Sanders got another huge block out of the break for 10-6. Another stuff block from Grote was followed by an ace for Powell and the Panthers used their last timeout at 13-9. Drechsel ended a long rally by tooling the block from the right, then she added another from the left for 15-10. The Huskies pushed the lead to six points, but a couple in a row from Pitt cut it to 18-14 and the Huskies took their first timeout. Out of the break, Drechsel had a great bump set to Endsley who finished for 19-14. But Pitt then began to mount a rally. Sanders finished for 20-16, but the Panthers then went on a 5-0 run to retake the lead, 20-21. Hoffman ended the run with a huge kill for 21-all. Hoffman tied it again at 22-up, but Pitt converted for 22-23. A Pitt service error knotted it, and then a Drechsel swing to the sideline was called wide, but Cook challenged and the replay showed it caught the sideline and rather than being down match point, the Huskies were up set point, 24-23. The Panthers converted in serve-receive to tie it, and then the Huskies won yet another challenge to again go up set point at 25-24, as replays found a Pitt blocker had touched the net. This time a rally was ended by Endsley who snuck one just inside the Pitt block for 26-24.
SET 5: In a total reversal of Sunday's fifth set, the Dawgs surged into the lead. UW got the first point of the fifth on a Hoffman put-away. Grote pounded a slide kill for 2-1. A big block by Grote was followed by a Pitt error and a Drechsel bomb from the right for 5-1 and Pitt took time. UW forced another Pitt error for 6-1. Kills by Grote and Drechsel kept the Huskies siding out. Endsley and Sanders had a huge roof for 9-4 and then Drechsel dropped a serve right in the corner for 10-4 and Pitt used its last timeout. It was the same score that UW fought back from one day earlier, so UW was not about to take its foot off the gas. After two Pitt points cut it to 10-6, Endsley snuffed out the run with a big swing and then a Calle serve was overpassed and Hoffman hit it down for 12-6. UW kept siding out in serve-receive with Hoffman and Grote finishing to get to match point at 14-8. The Huskies missed their first serve, but Pitt sent its serve into the net to end it, 15-9, as UW flooded on to the court.