Bohls: Texas' supporting cast helps deliver volleyball team to NCAA championship game
- Texas' backcourt doesn't always get the credit but was sensational in win over Wisconsin.
- Jhenna Gabriel and Nalani Iosia were instrumental in sending the Longhorns to championship game.
- "That was an epic match," Badgers coach Kelly Sheffield said after his first loss of the year.
Logan Eggleston gets most the headlines. And why not? She is, after all, the Big 12 player of the year and a compassionate social activist, very possibly the best player in the nation and great at nearly everything she does on the volleyball court. And off it as well.
She’s as reliable for Texas as bluebonnets in April.
Skylar Fields, the soft-spoken sophomore who has had breakout performances in this NCAA Tournament, dominated the previous two matches before Thursday night with 39 kills to help advance Texas to the Final Four for the 13th time in school history. She started slowly against Wisconsin in the national semifinals and was a tad off before finishing with 12 putaways.
And don’t forget Brionne Butler, who had been waiting in the weeds. Her coach mentioned that she'd been largely employed as a decoy before Jerritt Elliott had her unveil her vast skill set and explode at the CHI Health Center Omaha with 11 kills on just 16 swings for an absurd .625 hitting percentage.
Then there’s silky smooth Asjia O’Neal, the comeback kid from not one but two bouts with open heart surgery who’s caught fire for Texas. She was great early in setting the tone against Nebraska and almost equaled Butler’s domination on Thursday night, swinging at a .611 clip for 11 bombs.
But the story of this 27-1 team that faces second-seeded Kentucky on Saturday night for the NCAA championship would not be told without proper credit to a talented backcourt that’s dynamic in its own right.
As a group, they put on a spectacular display of complementary volleyball against Wisconsin with Texas’ array of stars for its most eye-popping victory of the season in a straight-set sweep of the tournament's No. 1 seed. Make that the most impressive victory of two seasons since the Longhorns actually played a full campaign in the fall, then 10 more matches in this spring season to rediscover their groove and their chemistry for the postseason.
Quite simply, Texas was dominant on Thursday, sweeping a formidable Big Ten champion and vanquishing a third consecutive opponent from that league after dispatching Penn State in the Sweet 16 and Nebraska in the Elite Eight. So much for the Big Ten Invitational.
“That,” Badgers coach Kelly Sheffield said, “was an epic match.”
The Longhorns’ overpowering win over an undefeated, No. 1-ranked Badgers team (18-1) that had dropped only three sets all season before its five-setter over Florida in the regional finals was due as much to Texas’ less-heralded crew as it was its more recognizable stars.
Texas’ supporting cast was, well, superior.
Whether it was Jhenna Gabriel or Nalani Iosia or Sydney Petersen or Morgan O’Brien, the Longhorns squelched every Wisconsin rally.
“Wow, I honestly have no words,” Butler said about her teammates. “All of our back row played amazing. I can't even believe how amazing they played.”
She was right.
They keyed the defensive masterpiece that held Wisconsin in check. Why, Dana Rettke, the Badgers’ 6-8 lighthouse and a four-time All-American, was held to just six kills and a .263 swinging average. Molly Haggerty, another offensive force who had destroyed Florida, had as many errors (six) as kills. Wisconsin hit an anemic .220 as a club.
"I just think (my emotions) just ramp up each and every game," Iosia said. "I get more excited as we're closer to achieving that goal that we set and I'm just amped up on off the court. I'm always hungry for that ball to come to me."
Gabriel, Texas’ 5-8 junior from Hawaii, had an incredible night. The feisty setter propped up Eggleston, Fields, O’Neal and Butler for 51 of the team’s 55 kills. The third-team All-American was everywhere on the court.
Iosia, the scrappy freshman libero from California who came on to start the final four matches of the fall season, saved her best game of the year for this night. She spent more time prone than erect, leading her teammates with 12 digs and a resolve that was truly infectious.
“Iosai’s fighting spirit was on full display out there,” Sheffield said. “Every time it looked like there was a serve coming to her, she’s over there doing one of these things (gesturing like a tiger with fangs bared). She was wanting the ball. Great players want the ball in big moments.”
They all did.
But not everyone can make All-American even if they all occasionally play like one.
“Last year during the pandemic, and during the recruiting process, we knew kind of what pieces we need to kind of fix and get better at,” Elliott said. “Having those three players back there really adds a different level to our program right now because you know we have some physical players, but you’ve got to complement that with ball control.
“And those three are playing so well together and they're having so much fun next to each other, and they're just balling out.”
Texas’ Petersen may have had the dig of the night, extending the play on set point in the first set before Wisconsin’s Danielle Hart’s shot sailed wide to give Texas a momentous 26-24 win. That gave the Horns immeasurable confidence moving forward.
In set three, when the Badgers were desperately trying to prolong their season, O’Brien, almost in self-defense, took a ball off the shoulder and kept it alive until Eggleston could put it away for the 23rd point before Texas would win an official challenge on another Eggleston drive on match point to finish it.
O’Brien was the lone Longhorn to ever play in a Final Four match, back in 2018 when she was at Illinois. The grad transfer’s also the only senior on this roster dripping in talent.
Can you say complete team?
Much of the success — if very few of the headlines — starts with Gabriel, who sets up Texas’ wealth of attackers with pinpoint accuracy from the left or the right.
“It seems like Jhenna Gabriel’s really improved as the season is going on,” Sheffield said. “I thought Jerritt did a really nice job of developing the depth of his team, using the fall and using the spring to work through different lineups and develop some depth.”
Even so, Elliott was already working on his players’ mindset moving forward. There’s still a match to go, even if the defense was on point.
“It was very steady,” he said. “It was good the entire night. But I think we still left a lot of points on the board.”
He and his players can almost taste it, but they’ve been close before. It’s been a minute since 2012, Texas’ last national championship, when Elliott can still remember winning “a barn-burner in game five against Michigan,” then putting together a perfect performance with only two hitting errors to finish off Oregon for the title.
“But I feel like Kentucky is playing maybe the best volleyball in the entire tournament,” Elliott said, before adding, “that's outside of our program.”
Supporting cast and all.