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Longhorns take pivotal third set on way to defeating Penn State in regional semifinal

Texas celebrates a point against Texas State during a match in Austin in March. The Longhorns defeated Penn State in four sets to advance to the regional final of the NCAA Tournament. They'll face Nebraska on Monday.

The Longhorns are moving on to play Nebraska on Monday, but Penn State certainly didn’t make their journey to the NCAA regional final easy. Texas met its match in a thriller Sunday evening.

UT head coach Jerritt Elliott knew the four-set (23-25, 25-18, 30-28, 25-17) contest would be tough — that’s just how things go when the Longhorns play the Nittany Lions — but no one could’ve predicted the marathon third set that saw the teams tie 21 times. Or that fourth-seeded Texas (25-1) would drop the first set of the match.

More:Texas slams through Wright State in opening match of NCAA volleyball tourney

“This sport has gotten so much parity in it now,” Elliott said. “When you play a Russ Rose team, you’re going to be in for a battle. And with COVID and the way it went, I think they had some players out a majority of their season and got healthy here at the end, so I knew that our draw was going to be extremely tough and our team battled.”

The Longhorns have been down before but not much this season. They were up 22-19 in the first set, which saw opposite hitter Skylar Fields put on a near-perfect performance. But the No. 13 Nittany Lions rallied late to win it. Texas’ service errors and poor ball control were to thank for that.

Serving has been a weakness on the team, but it’s not something that keeps the coach up at night, though he realizes fans might feel differently.

“I’m not too concerned about our service errors. We only missed 11. We had a few too many in one game, but this game is won and lost in the serve and pass game,” Elliott said.

It was a big night for the left side players. Logan Eggleston, who had a team-leading 22 kills in the match, was the hero of the second set after having a relatively quiet first set.

Brionne Butler, the star of Texas’ previous match against Wright State who had four blocks Sunday, came up big in the nail-biter of a third set. And Fields starred again in the final set. The 2019 Big 12 Freshman of the year had a career-high 21 kills on the day.

More:Texas' Eggleston headlines Longhorns' domination of All-Big 12 volleyball team

Elliott was also happy with Jhenna Gabriel and her set selection. Gabriel hustled around the court all match long, putting her teammates in position to attack. At one point in the first set, she kicked the volleyball to keep it in play. The move is not something she learned in practice.

“I don’t even know how I did it,” Gabriel said. “It was just coming at my foot and I just kind of spazzed out a little bit and it ended up coming up.”

Gabriel’s ninja instincts might come in handy against Nebraska on Monday afternoon. It’ll be a quick turnaround for the Longhorns, and the Huskers will have some semblance of a home court advantage as the tournament is in Omaha this year.

Fields isn’t too worried about returning to the court so soon after a hard-fought match or Nebraska’s advantage. She said the key will be for the team to create its own energy and focus on what it can control. Doing those things is how the Longhorns stuck it out through the grueling third set.

“We fight together as a team, and that’s who we are, so we just trust and believe in one another and I think that’s why we came out on top,” Fields said.

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Sunday was the first time Texas has beaten Penn State since Sept. 7, 2013. The Longhorns, who exited the 2019 NCAA Tournament in the semi regional final, are one step closer to the NCAA title they’ve been chasing since that loss to Louisville at Gregory Gymnasium. Next stop is Nebraska.

“We know that they’re just like us,” Fields said, “so it’s just time to compete.”