The No. 1 Texas Longhorns will play for the school’s fourth national championship on Saturday evening against the No. 4 Louisville Cardinals or the No. 6 Pittsburgh Panthers after defeating the No. 3 San Diego Toreros 3-1 on Thursday at the CHI Health Center in Omaha.
The win ended a 28-game winning streak for the Toreros as the Longhorns advanced to the national championship game for the ninth time.
The Horns bounced back from an error-filled first set to win the final three sets behind strong efforts from outside hitters Loggan Eggleston and Madisen Skinner. Eggleston struggled in the opening set with a number of errors, but finished with 16 kills and five blocks while Skinner notched a game-high 17 kills with a .394 hitting percentage. Texas was simply the better team by a significant margin over the final three sets as San Diego made 29 attacking errors overall and had a .112 hitting percentage as the Horns came up with 12 blocks.
Eggleston started the game with two attacking errors before settling in with a kill off the hands of a San Diego player. The opening moments of the first set featured neither team able to create any separation — when the set reached a 10-10 tie, the biggest lead was two points by the Toreros as the Longhorns made five attacking errors early. A net violation on San Diego gave Texas a 13-11 lead, but the Horns weren’t able to go on a scoring run with the Toreros scoring four of the next five points to become the first to 15 points. Texas had the advantage with eight kills to five by San Diego, but also had seven attack.
Middle blocker Asjia O’Neal came out of the timeout with a kill on from the middle, but a kill by the Toreros and another attacking error from Eggleston gave San Diego a 17-15 lead before Texas head coach Jerritt Elliott challenged a joust ruled out off of Eggleston’s arm reversed on review. But Eggleston continued struggling with a service error, the third of the first set by the Horns and her second, then matched by the Toreros, their second. A block by Eggleston and middle blocker Kayla Caffey gave Texas a 21-20 lead and forced a timeout by San Diego. Eggleston missed another attack long and San Diego followed with a kill between the arms of middle blocker Molly Phillips as Elliott called a timeout of his own.
Eggleston bounced back with her third kill after finally getting on top of the ball better, but San Diego regained the lead with a middle attack before Eggleston had another kill. On a critical point, O’Neal was called for going over the net on a poor pass by the Toreros before Eggleston committed her third service error with the set tied at 24-24. On set point, Skinner had a kill, but a one-armed save by O’Neal couldn’t produce another point for the Longhorns on a kill by the Toreros through the Texas block. A service error wasted the third set point for San Diego, but a ball pushed off the block by the Longhorns earned another set point and the Toreros won the opening set 28-26 after a huge save of a swing by Texas middle blocker Molly Phillips, who was then blocked on her second attack.
The Longhorns only hit .056 in the first set with 11 attacking errors and four service errors with four attacking errors and three service errors by Eggleston.
After Texas won the first two points of the second set, San Diego ran off four straight points behind strong serving from setter Gabby Blossom, but a nice dig by Longhorns libero Zoe Fleck set up a kill by Phillips. On a long rally, Eggleston went line for a kill to tie the set before San Diego lost a challenge. The set remained close until a patented slide kill by O’Neal and a net violation on the Toreros gave the Horns a 9-7 lead, but San Diego didn’t allow Texas to establish any more momentum than that, scoring the next two points. The Horns made it to 15 points first, leading by two points despite the Toreros having an advantage in kills (10-9) and service aces (2-0).
A kill by Phillips produced the first three-point lead of the match, extended to four by another kill from Phillips with a well-placed cut that led to a San Diego timeout. Texas continued heating up, however, winning eight of the final 10 points in the set to win it, including three straight kills to finish it 25-16. The Horns notched 15 kills and didn’t make a single attacking error as the Toreros made five.
Phillips started the third set with a kill and middle blocker Bella Bergmark followed it with a block as Texas went up 3-0 following a San Diego attacking error before a service error by the Longhorns and a kill by the Toreros. An ace from Fleck made it 5-2 and was the first of the match for Texas, then Phillips extended the lead with a kill on an overpass. The seventh kill by Eggleston made it 8-3 and forced a timeout by the Toreros with the Horns on a 16-5 run dating back to the previous set.
San Diego steadied, winning three of the next four points before Skinner had a kill down the line on a point extended by a wonderful dig by Fleck. The Toreros were able to stay within striking distance, though the Longhorns reached 15 points first with a four-point lead. Service errors were a problem for Texas, but the attack had long since settled in with the Horns showing superior power, placement, and depth. Back-to-back big blocks by Bergmark made it 22-16 and Texas eventually earned a set point after a kill by Phillips and an attacking error by San Diego before Bergmark and Eggleston combined to end the third set with a 25-18 win.
Two attacking errors by Texas opened the fourth set before a San Diego block and a kill as Elliott called a quick timeout. Outside hitter Melanie Para substituted in for one point and took advantage with a kill, but the Toreros continued to play well, leading 6-1 before the Horns recovered with three straight points. An ace by Eggleston tied it at 7-7 and an attacking error by San Diego gave Texas the lead heading into a timeout called by the Toreros. The set stayed close with the Horns making it to 15 points first before a wild rally that at one point included four Texas players in a pile in the middle of the court ended with a massive kill by Skinner to make it 17-15.
Three kills, including two by Skinner, made it 21-18 Texas before a kill by Phillips pushed the Longhorns towards the brink of advancing as Elliott successfully challenged an error call on Eggleston. On match point, it was fitting that Eggleston came up with the match’s final kill.