OMAHA – Even after losing the first two sets of Thursday’s NCAA semifinal, Daly Santana conceded nothing. “Those two sets were really close, and we were right there,’’ the Gophers outside hitter said, after her team dropped each by only two points. “That was our mentality. We’re right here. We got this.’’
That approach had served the Gophers extraordinarily well on their way to the Final Four at CenturyLink Center. But against a seasoned Texas team, their resilience and spirit were not enough. The Longhorns defeated the second-seeded Gophers 3-1 in an achingly close match, prevailing 26-24, 27-25, 23-25, 25-21 to advance to the NCAA championship for the fifth time in program history.
The Gophers (30-5) had trouble handling Texas’ outside hitters—particularly 6-4 freshman Yaasmeen Bedart-Ghani, who ruled the right side with power and accuracy. Bedart-Ghani hit a match-high .583, finishing with 15 kills and only one error. Amy Neal, the Big 12 player of the year, led the Longhorns with a career-high 25 kills, and Paulina Prieto Cerame added 19.
Santana struggled early in the match, hitting only .154 in the first two sets and finishing the second with two kills and two errors. But the senior gathered steam late, smashing seven kills in an errorless third-set performance that kept the Gophers afloat.
In the end, the Gophers were undone by too many mistakes against an opponent that never cracked. Texas (30-2) will face fourth-seeded Nebraska (31-4), a winner over No. 9 Kansas, in Saturday’s championship match. The third-seeded Longhorns have won two NCAA titles, including the 2012 championship, and are in the title game for the third time in the past eight years.
“That was a big-time semifinal match,’’ Texas coach Jerritt Elliott said. “[The Longhorns are] a team that never gives up. The way we played tonight was remarkable. It was an all-around great match for us.’’
The match was the first in the history of the NCAA semifinals or finals in which the first two sets went to extra points. Neither team led by more than two in the second set, and the first four-point lead for either came in the 156th rally of the match. The margin was within two points for 176 of 196 total rallies in the four sets.
Throughout the season, the Gophers had relied on their resolve. They made it to the Final Four by maintaining their poise no matter the situation, and they were outstanding closers, losing only one set in their first four NCAA tournament matches.
The Gophers’ strategy Thursday was to knock Texas out of system, trying to force bad passes and slow the Longhorns’ attack. But the Longhorns were tenacious, too. They maintained control of the ball and kept their rhythm despite the Gophers’ best efforts.
In a back-and-forth opening set, the teams were tied at 24 when Cerame crushed a kill to the back corner and Kat Brooks served an ace to put Texas ahead 1-0. The second set was equally nip-and-tuck; after the Gophers took a 20-18 lead, the Longhorns countered with three kills, and they broke a 25-25 tie with Chloe Collins’ kill and a wayward smash by the Gophers’ Sarah Wilhite.
Santana’s sterling performance in the third set — along with some superb blocking and a rash of Texas mistakes — swung things in the Gophers’ favor. They led 15-14 in the fourth set, but three attack errors and a pair of Texas aces energized the Longhorns during a late 8-2 spurt. Texas outhit the Gophers .296 to .271.
“It was a couple of heavyweights going at it,’’ Gophers coach Hugh McCutcheon said. “It’s a shame we couldn’t turn a couple more plays. To Texas’ credit, they were able to make the plays when it counted.
“I’m sad that [the season] has come to an end. It’s a great group, and it’s been a great journey.’’