Texas volleyball wins 3-1 in regional semifinal against Penn State to advance to Elite Eight

Maya Martinez

In Texas’ regional quarterfinal match against Wright State on Thursday, the two teams had never met. But Sunday afternoon’s Sweet 16 match against No. 13 Penn State was personal.

The two teams have history —most notably when they faced each other in the 2009 NCAA National Championship, where Penn State won in a narrow 3-2 game. The Longhorns, looking to keep their historic season alive, kept the past behind them and defeated the Nittany Lions 3-1 in Omaha, Nebraska.

But it certainly wasn’t easy, nor was it quick.

“When you play a (Penn State head coach) Russ Rose team, you’re going to be in for a battle,” Texas head coach Jerritt Elliott said. “I knew that our draw was gonna be extremely tough, and our team battled.”

Things got tough quickly when Texas dropped the first set 25-23. The Nittany Lions put up a short yet exhilarating run in come-from-behind fashion to secure the first set victory and shock the Longhorns, who just moments before the set’s conclusion were up by four. Texas looked for heroes to step up — the team had come too far to give up now.

The emotions in the empty arena were electric before the game even started and increased exponentially once the teams were in the thick of it.

“A big emphasis this season has been trying to create our own energy, and that’s something that’s really hard to do,” junior setter Jhenna Gabriel said. “But I think that Penn State has amazing energy. I love how fired up they get, and I think we fed off of that really well too and kind of just matched that the whole night.”

Texas faced less adversity in the second set, thanks in part to Gabriel’s setting and assistance to the outside hitters. The Longhorns earned a 25-18 win and tied the match 1-1. The third set, however, was plagued with gridlock, and neither team held a lead larger than two points. It seemed like it could last forever, and in a way it did.

But Gabriel helped dig the Longhorns out of the hole. A perfect assist to redshirt sophomore middle blocker Asjia O’Neal put Texas at match point, and a Penn State attack error finally put an end to the grueling set, which Texas took 30-28.

“I love the resilience that we showed. I love the way that we came back in game three,” Elliott said. “I think a lot of that has to be attributed to the game that Jhenna set. I was really pleased with her set selection.”

After nearly two hours of nonstop back and forth, the Longhorns, up 2-1, were just 25 points away from advancing to the next round of the NCAA Tournament. Despite being close to the finish line, Texas knew there was still plenty of time left.

“There (was) still more sets to be played,” sophomore opposite Skylar Fields said. “We took that and we worked hard, and that’s why we came out on top. We fight together as a team.”

Fields, who put up an incredible 21 kills, helped Texas eventually coast to a 25-17 win and take the fourth set to walk out victorious. But the team isn’t ready to exhale quite yet.

“As amazing as a win like this feels, you can’t take too much time to focus on it,” Gabriel said. “You just kind of have to get ready for the next match, go to sleep and wake up.”

Texas faces No. 5 Nebraska Monday afternoon in the regional final, with the winner advancing to the Final Four.