Championship eludes No. 4 Longhorns for second-straight year

Leah Vann

COLUMBUS, Ohio — No. 4 Texas wasn’t supposed to make it this far. But here the Longhorns were on the court at the Nationwide Arena with a chance to win a national championship Saturday night.

For the second year in a row, Texas dropped a championship match. No. 6 Stanford topped No. 4 Texas in four sets 25-21, 25-19, 18-25, 25-21.

“I couldn’t be more proud of what we did this year and the fight that we had,” head coach Jerritt Elliott said. “Late October I don’t think anybody would’ve picked us to be in the finals and we found a way to make that happen.”

The first set was tightly contested, with both teams staying within striking distance. The Longhorns held a 18-15 lead late in the set, but things started to crumble. Despite four kills in the first set, White accounted for two service errors, which hurt Texas late in the set. A string of Longhorn errors gave Stanford a 3-point lead 23-20 late in the set, which they never gave up to close the set 25-21.

“A little bit depth perception, lighting, but my toss was just little off tonight so that played a big part in it,” White said. “I was just not keeping it in the court. Just trying to blast on it.”

The second set was the battle of runs. Texas held a 7-6 lead, but the Cardinal rattled off six-straight points to take a 12-7 advantage. Stanford middle blocker Inky Ajanaku led the Cardinal, nailing four kills in the holes of the Texas defense. The Texas duo of junior outside hitter Ebony Nwanebu and White fought back, fueling a 5-0 Texas run to take a lead 16-15.

The set took a final turn after White missed her fourth serve of the match at 18-18. A 4-0 run by Stanford helped the Cardinal close out the set 25-19 and take a 2–0 lead over Texas.

But, Texas made changes in the third set. Freshman Orie Agbaji entered the game at middle blocker, while sophomore Yaazi Bedart-Ghani moved to the position she used to call home: right-side hitter.

“Yaazie hasn’t played outside hitter basically all season,” Elliott said. “Since the very first time we played Nebraska, but with Paulina struggling, we were against the walls. We’re looking at the other numbers and everyone was hitting well above .300, and so it was a big difference maker earlier in that game. The reason we made that switch was to give ourselves a fighting chance. ”

The moves worked. Texas added 3.5 blocks in the third set with Agbaji grabbing one. In addition, freshman defensive specialist Autumn Rounsaville surpassed her season-high of 14 digs, grabbing 18, helping the Longhorns maintain a comfortable lead, only letting Stanford within five points before closing out the set 25-18.

“[Rounsaville] started off really rocky the first time we played Nebraska — nerves were just normal for freshman,” Elliott said. “She got injured, and then we tried to get her confidence back a little bit and it kind of just kept developing. There’s something special about Autumn. She has a calming demeanor, she sees the game at a very high level and she doesn’t get rattled.”

But, nothing went right for Texas in the fourth set. The Cardinal scored six-straight points to put the Longhorns in an early 6-0 hole. Bedart-Ghani would be the only successful hitter for a while, racking up four kills.

“You have to execute at a high level with the size block they have,” Elliott said. “There are areas that have kind of been our achilles heel throughout the season and it exposed itself tonight.”

But one person wasn’t enough. White and Nwanebu did all they could until the Stanford defense was too much. Texas made it close at the end, but Stanford eventually took the set and match 25-21.

The loss comes after Texas beat No. 1 Nebraska in the semifinals on Thursday. The burnt orange will lose three seniors, but will return next season mostly intact. After losing in two-straight title games, Nwanebu said the mission is clear.

“It’s weird to think I have one more season,” Nwanebu said. “I have one more season to win a championship. I know Micaya said we all need to work our butts off to get to this point next year and have a different outcome, so I’m going to do everything in my power to do that.”