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How sweep it is! Texas brushes past top-seeded Wisconsin, moves to NCAA title match

This year’s Texas volleyball team has that special something.

That’s why the Longhorns have won 27 matches since September. It’s why they bulldozed through the best of the Big Ten to punch their ticket to the Final Four. And it’s why they beat top-seeded Wisconsin in three sets 26-24, 25-19, 25-23 on Thursday night to advance to Saturday's NCAA championship match.

How to watch: Texas, Kentucky set to play for NCAA volleyball title

The fourth-seeded Longhorns (27-1) will meet second-seeded Kentucky, which beat Washington in the first national semifinal. Texas will be aiming for its third national championship. This is the program's first Final Four since 2016.

Texas players celebrate winning the first set of Thursday night's three-set sweep of top-seeded Wisconsin in the NCAA Tournament national semifinals. The Longhorns will face Kentucky in Saturday's national championship match.

“We’re super fired up. It’s been a while,” Texas head coach Jerritt Elliott said. “...This group is such a special group that you want them to learn the lessons by ultimately winning the championship.”

Watch:Challenged play advances Texas volleyball to the NCAA championship

But aside from all of that, the Longhorns have one more bragging right: They handed the previously undefeated Badgers (18-1) not only their first loss of the season, but their first opening set loss all season, too.

Everything changed when Elliott called a time out in the first game. The Longhorns were trailing 16-20, though they had surged to an early lead at the start of the match. Once the players emerged from the sideline, Texas went on a 3-0 run to close it to 20-19. Then Wisconsin called time out.

“It was a very simple talk, like ‘We’ve just got to execute’ and we were looking for a matchup that we had and we were able to execute it,” Elliott said.

Texas' Asjia O'Neal spikes the ball against Wisconsin's Molly Haggerty and Danielle Hart during the second set of Thursday's Final Four semifinal. O'Neal had a big match, with 11 kills and three blocks.

It was a back-and-forth game from that point, and the set went overtime, but Texas came out on top. Logan Eggleston posted seven of her 17 kills in the opening game. Brionne Butler, who had five kills to start, recorded a perfect hitting percentage to put the Badgers in a position they hadn’t been in all season.

“We knew that we had to have Brionne Butler be big tonight, and in the past few matches she’s been more of a decoy,” Elliott said. “Tonight she was on fire and we’re so proud of her.”

Performances from Eggleston and Butler, as well as Skylar Fields (12 kills) and Asjia O’Neal (11 kills, three blocks) seemed to knock Wisconsin off course. Butler set the tone with a monstrous serve in the second set to put the Longhorns out first, and Texas didn’t trail again.

Fighting to stay alive, Wisconsin brought pressure in the third set. Down by as many as six points to start, the Badgers climbed back to tie things up at 17. Then they took the lead before Texas tied things up again.

Texas' Jhenna Gabriel, left, sets the ball for Asjia O'Neal during the second set. Wisconsin was the last remaining undefeated team in the country and the No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

The teams went back and forth like they did in the first set, tying and swapping leads. But it was the Longhorns who won the battle. And it will be the Longhorns who will go to war one more time Saturday.

Butler said the Badgers may have underestimated her squad, which is a tough unit. Over the last nine months, the Longhorns have shown immense discipline. They missed no matches due to COVID-19 and dropped just one contest all year, though they’re probably not thinking about that lone loss to Rice too much now.

“It was really hard,” Butler said. “We’ve basically been in a bubble for nine months and it’s definitely been paying off.”

Texas players have spoken a lot about creating their own energy. As they erupted on the court after hearing the result of the challenged play call that gave them match point at the conclusion of the third set, there was plenty of that to go around.

“It was definitely a long minute to wait,” Butler said. “But once we heard the call, it was just a free-for-all. Everybody just ran out. We were so excited. So pumped up. The wait was well worth it, I’ll tell you that.”