No. 4 Texas volleyball sweeps No. 1 Wisconsin in Final Four, advances to national championship

Maya Martinez

Everyone knew Thursday’s Final Four matchup between No. 4 Texas and No. 1 Wisconsin would be full of pivotal moments. But it’s unlikely anyone thought it would come down to a last-second challenge, sending the Texas volleyball team to their first national championship appearance since 2016.

The last set was tied 23-23. Texas, already having won the first set 26-24 and the second 25-19, held the lead for the majority of the third. But Wisconsin, coming off a perfect regular season and narrow five-set victory against Florida in the national quarterfinal, battled back to even things up.

Junior setter Jhenna Gabriel, who already had 41 assists on the night, notched her 42nd in a spectacular fashion, setting it up to junior middle blocker Brionne Butler, who threw it down right past Wisconsin’s six-foot-eight middle blocker Dana Rettke.

Match point, Texas.

The Texas bench was on its feet, as was the limited yet loud legion of burnt orange in the CHI Health Center Arena in Omaha, Nebraska. The Longhorns were a point away from the national title game.

“We really took the offseason to mentally prepare ourselves, physically prepare ourselves to get into moments like this,” Butler said.

Graduate libero Morgan O’Brien sent a serve to Wisconsin’s back line, who passed it around until a potential game-tying kill was stuffed by sophomore and redshirt sophomore middle blockers Molly Phillips and Asjia O’Neal.

Despite being denied, Wisconsin kept the ball alive and sent it to the Texas side of the net. Gabriel to O’Brien, O’Brien to Eggleston. Eggleston leapt in the air and sent a dart over the Badgers’ front line. But it was out of bounds.

The entire Texas team was motioning towards the officials that the ball was touched prior to going out of bounds. Then, head coach Jerritt Elliott made one of the most important decisions of his 20-year career at Texas.

“Thank goodness I had another challenge,” Elliot said. “I was thankful I had one in my pockets still.”

Elliott’s third and final challenge card would put the fate of the undefeated Wisconsin team in the officials’ hands — if the call was confirmed, it’d be 24-24, anyone’s game. If it was overruled, Texas would win the set 25-23 and send the Badgers back to Madison.

“It was definitely a long minute to wait, I’ll tell you that,” Butler said.

Finally, after a minute of review, Wisconsin’s chances of a perfect season were ended with the swift motion of the head official’s hands. Wisconsin’s setter laid a fingertip on the ball before it went out.

Point Texas. Ball game.

“But once we heard the call, it was just a free-for-all. Everybody just ran out,” Butler said. “We were so excited, so pumped up. The wait was well worth it.”

In a year like no other, this championship run was never a guarantee. The Longhorns had to fight for every bit of success they earned, and the unprecedented circumstances actually strengthened the team and created an unstoppable dynamic, freshman libero Nalani Iosia said.

“Off the court, I just want the best for my team, to just go out there and fight for each and every ball.” Iosia said. “I’m always hungry for that ball to come to me or not. Either way, I’m over there supporting my teammates.”

Texas will face off against No. 2 Kentucky in the NCAA championship Saturday night at 7 p.m. where the team will look to light the tower and bring home a fourth national title.