A decade ago, the volleyball team from Hawaii beat Michigan to advance to the Final Four for the ninth time in school history.
Jhenna Gabriel, a native of Honolulu, was nine years old during that 2009 season. She was a frequent visitor to the Stan Steriff Center, she said, because “every little girl in Hawaii, that’s the reason why we want to play volleyball at the end of the day.” Gabriel’s all-time favorite Hawaii player — former setter Mita Uiato — wasn’t playing in college yet, but the Longhorns’ setter still has fond memories of that 2009 team.
Ten years later, Gabriel will have a say in whether her new favorite team makes it to next week’s Final Four.
“Seeing Hawaii be able to do that and being able to have that as a memory in the back of my mind, and now in my own way, being able to live out that dream is pretty awesome,” Texas’ sophomore setter said Thursday.
Texas (23-3) meets Louisville (21-9) in Friday’s Sweet 16. The Longhorns would then face either Minnesota (25-5) or Florida (27-4) in Saturday’s Elite Eight. Texas’ last Final Four trip was in 2016.
Both Texas and Louisville are coming off five-set wins in the second round. Louisville reached the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2005 by upsetting Western Kentucky. Texas battled back from a 2-1 deficit in a 3-2 win over UC Santa Barbara.
“I think we learned that we just need to come out stronger and come out with that same intensity and same energy and not wait for teams to hit us; we just need to hit them first,” UT senior Micaya White said. “It kind of brought us together. Now we’re excited to compete again.”
Texas leads the nation with its .325 hitting percentage. That would be tied for the fourth-best in UT history if the season ended today. White, Logan Eggleston and Skylar Fields are all all-region honorees who are hitting over .300. Middle blocker Brionne Butler boasts a .441 percentage and an average of 2.3 kills per set.
Directing the offense is Gabriel, who became a starter midway through the 2018 season. She’s averaging 10.5 assists per set this year.
“I think we’re doing pretty great,” Gabriel said. “We do have the No. 1 hitting percentage in the country, and I think it’s something that makes us such a big threat. We’re so balanced. There’s not one night where somebody really has to put the team on their back and carry us offensively.”
Louisville lost leading scorer Melanie McHenry to a knee injury in October. The Cardinals’ offense, though, has been boosted by the play of redshirt freshman Aiko Jones. She’s averaging 3.09 kills per set and had 37 kills in the first two NCAA matches.
Louisville last faced Texas in 2012, but one of the Cardinals has an advanced scouting report on the Longhorns. Louisville setter Tori Dilfer played at TCU the past two years. The daughter of former NFL quarterback Trent Dilfer and older sister of Vandegrift volleyball player Delaney, she had 52 assists in a 3-2 loss to the Longhorns on Oct. 3, 2018.
“I’ve competed with them hard, obviously in a different program, but they’re really fun to play,” Dilfer said Thursday. “They’re going to bring their best and so you just have to match that.”
Friday-Saturday, Gregory Gym, ESPNU
Friday’s Sweet 16 — No. 2 Texas (23-3) vs. Louisville (21-9), 3 p.m.; No. 7 Minnesota (25-5) vs. No. 10 Florida (27-4), 5:30
Saturday’s Elite Eight — Friday’s winners, 7 p.m.