OMAHA, Neb. — On Thursday night, Texas libero Zoe Fleck needed to correct a statement she had been making for years.
Fleck has long talked about the match she played against Texas in Austin with UC Santa Barbara during the second round of the 2019 NCAA Tournament. Fleck’s Gauchos lost in five sets, but she still considered that to be the most fun she’d ever had on a volleyball court.
Fleck and the top-seeded Longhorns shook off a slow start in a 26-28, 25-16, 25-18, 25-20 win over San Diego in the NCAA semifinals. With the triumph at the CHI Health Center, Texas (27-1) advances to play Louisville (31-2) for the national championship on Saturday.
“Tonight I’m revising that statement (about the 2019 UCSB-Texas match),” Fleck said. “That game (Thursday night’s) was the most fun volleyball game I’ve ever been part of. I am so incredibly proud of every single person in that locker room, one to 18.”
Texas moved to within one win of its first national championship since 2012 with a Logan Eggleston kill that secured the decisive fourth set. It also came just moments after the match’s biggest play.
With Texas, which once trailed 4-0 to start the set, leading 16-15, San Diego (31-2) served to start a long rally. At first, the Longhorns were unable to get a point off swings by Asjia O’Neal and Madisen Skinner. A dive by Fleck prevented USD’s Breana Edwards from evening the score.
On San Diego’s second attempt, the Toreros went back to Edwards. The outside hitter’s attempted kill deflected off a Texas block and went across the court to Skinner, who punched the ball in the air with her right hand. Texas setter Saige Ka’aha’aina-Torres and Fleck both dove to keep the rally going, and Fleck somehow saved a ball which Eggleston passed back to San Diego’s side of the net. That sequence ended with Eggleston herself stumbling into a pile of Longhorns that by that time included Fleck, Ka’aha’aina-Torres and Keonilei Akana.
As the point continued, the Longhorns picked themselves up and got back into position. A few seconds later, Ka’aha’aina-Torres served up Skinner for an emphatic kill.
“I think it was more about our attitude of not letting that ball drop,” Ka’aha’aina-Torres said. “We were down by four to start the set. Not a great way to start. But we knew we had to be gritty. And we knew that we were going to have to go for every single ball.”
Added Skinner: “I remember everyone screaming, ‘Get up, get up,’ because we have to keep playing. It was an awesome effort on our end.”
The point gave the Longhorns a 17-15 lead. It also encapsulated a strength on the UT roster, Fleck said.
“I think it just shows that we can rely on each other, right?” Fleck said. “Nobody on this team has to have the best game of their life or has to have a perfect game to win that. We all come from teams or come from places where we have each individually had to be that person to have a perfect game to win the match, and to come together with a group of those people, we can just rely on each other. Someone can have a bad game, two people can have a bad game and other people will step up and fill those holes.”
Skinner finished with a match-high 17 kills and a .394 hitting percentage. Eggleston struggled in an opening set that Texas lost, but ended the match with her 16th kill. Six of Molly Phillips’ 14 kills came as UT grabbed a 17-13 lead in the second set.
After posting an .056 hitting percentage in the first set, the Longhorns hit at least .300 in each of the next three. Texas has now rallied for a win in all five matches that it has dropped the first set this season.
“I think that everyone can say the first set was not our perfect set. It was not good volleyball on our end and we lost by two points,” Phillips said. “I think that that’s also something that we know we can turn on and just rely on our training.”
For Skinner, Thursday marked another strong outing in Omaha. While playing at Kentucky two seasons ago, she totaled 63 kills over five matches played in the NCAA tournament that Omaha hosted in its entirety because of the pandemic. The final 19 of Skinner’s kills came against Texas in the championship match.
Twenty months later, Skinner and the Longhorns will join forces as the chase for another championship comes to a close. The NCAA championship match against Louisville (31-2) will be held at the CHI Health Center at 7 p.m. on Saturday.
“Every team is so different, so you can’t compare them,” Skinner said. “Just the drive and grit we have on this team is something that I’ve never been part of. To be able to play alongside these girls has been an absolute dream. Kind of took a little bit for us to get our groove (against San Diego). Ended up turning it on, and that was that. But super excited to be back and love Omaha.”
Notes: San Diego was led by Edwards’ 14 kills. … With 46 assists and 11 digs, Ka’aha’aina-Torres recorded the sixth double-double performance of her season. Fleck had 21 digs for a Texas defense that limited San Diego to a .112 hitting percentage. … Phillips tied her career-high for kills and took a personal-best 34 swings.