Bohls: Jerritt Elliott's Texas volleyball team isn't bashing or bragging, just winning
- Jerritt Elliott didn't bash the committee for his loaded region, but knows the challenges ahead.
- "I don't think we're mad about it," All-American outside hitter Logan Eggleston said of the draw.
- Texas got a good test from a strong Rice team, but won 3-0 for its 19th sweep of the season.
Jerritt Elliott deserves some credit.
Not only did his No. 2-seeded Texas volleyball team dispatch a highly skilled Rice team in a 3-0 sweep in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday night, he bit his tongue.
And that’s saying something because on the surface, it looked as if the Longhorns could bite off more than they could chew, given their treacherous draw to try to reach the Final Four.
Or at least they might if they weren’t the class of the field as the returning NCAA runner-up with more weapons than an illicit arms dealer.
Texas is good. Damn good.
Maybe even the best team in the country good, with all due respect to still undefeated 29-0 Louisville, which earned the coveted overall top seed and was playing its second-round match Saturday. The Longhorns know how good they are. They were 15-1 against teams in the NCAA field, losing once in a split with No. 5 seed Baylor.
Even if he didn’t come out and cast stones, Texas certainly deserved more credit than it received as a nine-time Final Four participant and five-time championship game qualifier in 20 years under Elliott. He’s only knocked down the door once, but he’s always on the front porch.
“It’s a challenging region,” Elliott said. “But we’ve been doing this a long time.”
Texas didn’t get assigned to a region as much as it did a shark pit. Consider that on the Longhorns’ side of the bracket, they were lumped in with the Pac-12 champion (Washington), the SEC champion (defending national champion Kentucky) and the Big Ten runner-up (Nebraska, which is one of a handful of elite volleyball programs in the entire nation).
So three of last year’s four national semifinalists are all bunched together in this quarter of the field. Not sure why the selection committee didn’t make it a clean sweep and stick Wisconsin — the other 2020 semifinalist — in this region as well. It’s a stout draw, to say the least.
Oh, and there also was unintimidated Rice, which had beat Texas twice in a row until the Longhorns settled that score with a sweep during this regular season.
“They played an amazing game,” Owls coach Genny Volpe said. “We didn’t get the result we wanted, but I don’t think the score was very indicative of the way the match went.”
Certainly the Owls, riding the vicious right arm of super senior Nicole Lennon and the scrambling ability of Carly Graham to keep points alive, scared the heck out of Texas. Forget Friday's 3-0 sweep, the second in as many NCAA matches and the Longhorns’ impressive 19th of a 26-1 season.
The Owls were right there. Never mind that they never held a lead until they went up 3-2 in the third set. The opening set was back and forth, and Rice, trailing 24-20 in the second, fought off four consecutive set points before bowing out on a Skylar Fields’ winner.
“We gave ‘em a little spook,” said a very respectful Lennon, who had nine kills for Rice, “but they’re a great team.”
That they are.
And a hungry team as well. Of course, the Longhorns have been famished for a while, considering how strong they’ve been in the regular season and postseason.
This program has been a national powerhouse almost from the day Elliott walked in the door. He’s every bit the recruiter and motivator that Mack Brown was in football here. Both of them won championships here, Brown in 2005 and Elliott in 2012.
But it’s been a minute for Elliott, who continues to stack one great season upon another without collecting the ultimate prize for a second time. His squads fell in last year’s final after clocking No. 1 Wisconsin 3-0 in the semis and downed powers Penn State and Nebraska along the way.
That interrupted a string of nagging defeats in the regional finals in 2017 (Stanford) and 2018 (BYU) and a shocking loss at home to unranked Louisville in 2019. But this program has the muscle memory of four straight trips to the Final Four after the 2012 title.
“We have the experience,” All-American outside hitter Logan Eggleston said. “We know what it takes to win it all.”
Texas returned virtually intact except libero Morgan O’Brien from the team that was crushing it all last season until falling 3-1 to Kentucky on the final night of the season in Omaha.
That heartbreaking setback has not so much haunted as it has driven this Texas team, and its full smorgasbord of talent was on full display Friday night in a packed Gregory Gym where a sellout crowd of 4,322 that included more than half the UT men’s basketball team took in an offensive showcase.
“We knew it was going to be intense,” Eggleston said. “We knew they were going to bring their A game, so we’d have to bring our A game.”
I’m not sure Texas even has a B game, especially not at home.
“They have heavy arms,” Graham said, “and they contact the ball so high.”
It’d be wrong to say Eggleston, who was just named Big 12 player of the year for the second consecutive season, as was Elliott for coach of the year, took a backseat to any teammate. She’s either driving this machine or riding shotgun on most nights, and she had a dozen kills and a team-high 17 digs on Friday, but she also had help.
Molly Phillips, a creative 6-foot-5 middle blocker with a super high volleyball IQ and a vast repertoire of shots, carried Texas in the opening set with four of her 11 kills, including the game-winner. She was a second-team All-Big 12 selection, I assume because there must be a league rule that the first team can’t be all Longhorns. Texas had five on the first team.
“She doesn’t get a lot of the credit,” Elliott said of Phillips. “Early on, she kept us in the game. She knows the game. She is our Larry Bird.”
The coaching staff calls her the “silent assassin” for a reason. Hey, somebody’s got to be in the shadows — such as they are — in the presence of talents like All-Americans Eggleston and Brionne Butler. Jhenna Gabriel, a third-team All-American, had an impressive, season-high four aces on the night, and it was the ebullient Fields who took over the match in the third set, scoring five of Texas' last eight points and the final one to complete the sweep. She finished with 18 kills and even more smiles.
“What a match,” Elliott gushed afterward. “Their offense was on fire. We’ve had some battles over the years with them. We knew it’d be a challenge.”
Rice hit .340 as a team. And lost.
To give you an idea of how potent that is, the Longhorns entered the postseason with a .342 hitting percentage. That’s No. 2 in the nation. Texas banged out winners at a staggering rate of .490, the season’s best. Did we mention they have weapons?
If nothing else, the gritty match prepares Texas for the rest of this journey.
To their credit, the Longhorns aren't playing the disrespect card. They could, but to what benefit?
“I don’t think we were mad about it,” Eggleston said. “When we play big names, we show up for the challenge.”
Because Texas this year may just be the biggest name.