Longhorns come away with one victory, one loss in VERT Challenge

Michael Shapiro

Texas faced its first ranked opponents of the season this weekend — a pair of fourth-ranked teams — and came away with a mixed result, taking down Nebraska in a back-and-forth five-set win Friday, but dropping a 3-1 decision to Florida on Saturday.

For the No. 3 Longhorns, the weekend’s matches served as the first true test of the season, after they decimated three unranked opponents leading up to this weekend’s VERT Challenge in Austin. 

“This is the type of competition we will see later on in regionals and in the regional finals,” senior outside hitter Amy Neal said. “I think it’s good we did this early, so we know that it is going to happen later on in the season.”

The weekend’s matches started on Friday evening as former Big 12 rival Nebraska came to Gregory Gym to face the Longhorns. The Longhorns got out to a fast start against Nebraska, winning the first set 25-17 behind strong play from junior middle blocker Chiaka Ogbogu and junior opposite hitter Ebony Nwanebu, who ended the night with a match-high 22 kills. 

“It felt great to finally be back on the court,” Nwanebu said. “Having my family out there to watch me really got me excited to play for them and play for my state.”

After Nebraska claimed two of the match’s next three sets, the match headed to the deciding fifth set. Before a raucous crowd at Gregory Gym, the Huskers got out to a 6-3 lead in the final set. However, after head coach Jerritt Elliott called a timeout to settle down his team, Texas went on a 12-5 run to claim the set 15-11 and the match 3-2.

Friday’s victory improved the Longhorns record to 4-0 on the season, but Texas’ undefeated record wouldn’t last after Saturday’s match against the Florida Gators, who defeated the Longhorns in four sets, with each set falling within a margin of seven points. Even though the fourth and final set was close, Florida pulled away with a 26-24 victory. 

Florida’s sophomore middle blocker Rhamat Alhassan dominated the match. Alhassan seemed to be everywhere on the court against the Longhorns on Saturday, registering a match-leading 13 kills in addition to a kill percentage of .480.

“We got them in some situations where we could control the ball, but they were passing well,” Elliott said. “When they’re passing, they’ve got two of the best middles in the country. I mean, [Rhamat] Alhassan, … she’s at a highest point. And you know you can’t do anything early on.”

Texas’ next matches will come this weekend when it hosts the Texas Classic. The Longhorns will face off against UTSA on Friday and Santa Clara on Sunday.