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Texas volleyball falls to Kentucky in NCAA championship match

Kentucky players celebrate their four-set win over Texas in Saturday night's NCAA Volleyball Tournament championship match. It was the first national championship for softball in Kentucky history.

Texas began its marathon volleyball season last September, when the Longhorns opened with a chip on their shoulders. When they crossed the finish line Saturday night in Omaha, Neb., they came up short of a third national championship. Second-seeded Kentucky just had more in the tank.

Texas' 25-20, 18-25, 23-25, 22-25 loss to the Wildcats all came down to the fourth set, a must-win for the Longhorns, who were down 2-1. Texas, trying to force a fifth set, jumped out to a 6-1 lead, but the SEC champions closed the gap and then surged ahead, earning their first national championship in program history.

When Texas head coach Jerritt Elliott sat down at the podium for post-match interviews, he put on his glasses and stared at the stat sheet.

“Honestly, looking at the numbers, Kentucky was that good,” he said.

Texas' Skylar Fields slams a kill against Kentucky's Madi Skinner and Elise Goetzinger during the second set in Saturday night's four-set loss of the NCAA championship match.

Still, the Longhorns had the edge out of the gate to start the match. Five different players recorded two or more kills in the first set and the team posted a .455 hitting percentage. Texas was cruising.

Then Kentucky gave it to Texas from the service line in the second set, and the Longhorns never recovered. They didn’t win the serve and pass game.

But the effort was there. Logan Eggleston knocked down 21 kills, three digs — including one to the face — and two blocks. Skylar Fields wasn’t far behind with 16 kills, two digs and three blocks. Molly Phillips and Brionne Butler had eight kills apiece. Yet the Wildcats, boasting the AVCA coach of the year in Craig Skinner and player of the year in setter Madison Lilley, still had the edge.

“Their better was better than ours tonight,” Elliott said. “But I thought our team fought. I thought we gave everything we had.”

Texas outside hitter Logan Eggleston attacks against Kentucky in the opening set of Saturday night's four-set Wildcats win. It was the first NCAA volleyball championship in Kentucky history.

Eggleston, the rims of her eyes stained red after the loss and her voice choked up, said she’s proud of what her team accomplished this season, all things considered. The Longhorns played two seasons-worth of matches all during a hellish year plagued by the COVID-19 pandemic and social unrest.

Then, in the NCAA Tournament, Texas defeated formidable Big Ten powers Penn State, Nebraska and Wisconsin before facing the nation’s top-ranked offense in Kentucky.

“It’s so hard to get to this point in the season, and we had a really hard road to get here,” Eggleston said. “ ...We fought for every single point … We had a tough year last year and a crazy year this year, so it just shows how much we battle.”

That fight is what Elliott chose to fixate on, along with the team’s selflessness. It's why he said this year’s squad was a privilege to coach and why he felt joy despite the outcome of the championship match.

“We became a true family and we had an immense amount of love for one another,” said Elliott, in his 20th year as Texas' coach. “It was really the most enjoyable season I’ve ever had.”

Elliott said he can’t wait to get back in the gym, after a break of course. Eggleston can’t wait either, though she said she needs a week or so away from the court. School is ramping up; it’s finals season, after all.

After nine months of grinding in the gym and staying disciplined to reach the pinnacle of the college game, Eggleston said she’s tired and drained. But she and her teammates are also hungry, much like they were in December 2019.

Texas entered the season with a vengeance, trying to shake the ghosts from a loss to Louisville in that year’s Sweet 16. The Wildcats were playing for something else — a historic win and for Terrence Clark, the 19-year-old Kentucky basketball player who died in a car accident on Thursday.

The night didn’t go the Longhorns’ way, but now they have something to play for.

“This just brings us even closer together and kind of inspires us to get over that hump and to win this thing,” Eggleston said.