With the Final Four in sight, can Texas pass its upcoming Sweet 16 tests on defense?
Not too long ago, Jhenna Gabriel and Nalani Iosia both had reasons to root for Hawaii's volleyball team.
Gabriel is a Honolulu native whose favorite player was former Hawaii setter Mita Uiato. Iosia's older sister, Norene, starred at Hawaii from 2016-19.
But these days, Gabriel and Iosia aren't teaming up to form a Rainbow Wahine fan club. On Wednesday, they were both representing Texas as they sat next to each other at a press conference. And as UT's junior setter and sophomore libero, Gabriel and Iosia are helping lead the Longhorns through the NCAA Tournament.
Texas (26-1) will meet Washington (26-4) in a Sweet 16 matchup on Thursday at Gregory Gym, which was recently made over with a court that has an NCAA-mandated blue outline.
"The stage is set in Greg," Iosia said of the blue court.
Blessed with all-conference attackers like Logan Eggleston, Skylar Fields and Brionne Butler, Texas leads the nation with a .347 hitting percentage. Gabriel was an All-American last season who Texas coach Jerritt Elliott says is "setting the best she's ever set."
But volleyball isn't just an offensive game. Texas is No. 22 nationally with its 2.58 blocks per set.
In the back row, however, Texas averages 12.87 digs per set. That is No. 300 among the 332 Division I volleyball teams.
This season, Iosia has a receiving percentage of .930. Defensive specialist Sydney Petersen is at .960. Eggleston (.945) and Melanie Parra (.922) also have gotten plenty of opportunities on the back row.
For comparison's sake, two liberos earned AVCA All-America nods last season. Wisconsin's Lauren Barnes and Kentucky's Gabby Curry had receiving percentages of .973 and .946.
Iosia believes the Longhorns' passing and receiving is "trending upwards." She added that a key will be "trusting each other and then communicating throughout the tough times and just knowing that we have each other's back on the court, especially since nerves can be racking up during the time and all the pressure could be on."
Elliott expressed his satisfaction with the way the Longhorns are passing. He said his team has cleaned up some of the deficiencies they spotted in the film review of last week's wins over Sacred Heart and Rice.
"With our offense and the way that it is, we don't have to be perfect passing," Elliott said. "We're good when we're six to eight feet off the net and up and down. It may not look like we need to be right on the net, but we're satisfied and we're passing six to eight feet up and down because we have a high kill percentage and we've got good passers that can play the game."
Gabriel, whose sets are often set up by the back row, added that she doesn't have any complaints.
"You see the way our middles operate and the way they transition and they're still killing the same amount of balls when we're that six-to-eight feet range off of the net," she said.
The Longhorns and Huskies have their date set for 6:30 p.m. on Thursday. The winner of that match advances to play either Nebraska or Illinois, who play at 8:30. Gregory's Elite Eight match will take place at 9 p.m. Saturday.
Like Texas, Washington reached the Final Four last season. This fall, Washington is the Pac-12 champion and won its last 10 matches. In the postseason, the Huskies have swept both Brown and Hawaii. Brown's 3-1 lead in the third set of its first-round match against Washington has been both the largest and latest deficit that the Huskies have faced in a tournament set.
Washington's Ella May Powell is No. 21 nationally with 10.89 assists per set. Two Huskies — Claire Hoffman and Samantha Drechsel — are averaging more than three kills each set.
"The way we're playing right now, it's cool to see just what we can do and the numbers that we can reach," Powell said. "We've had this standard for ourselves all season."
Texas and Washington haven't played each other since 2006. Meanwhile, Nebraska (23-7) and Illinois (22-11) are Big Ten rivals that have already seen each other twice this season. Nebraska swept Illinois on Oct. 16 and Nov. 4.
Six teams in the country have limited opponents to a lower hitting percentage than Nebraska, which is getting hit against at a .142 clip. Only Howard (262) and Weber State (244) have served more aces this season than Illinois (232).