On Saturday evening at the CHI Health Center in Omaha, the No. 1 Texas Longhorns face off against the No. 4 Louisville Cardinals in the NCAA Tournament national championship match trying to reverse the only unsettling trend in head coach Jerritt Elliott’s superlative tenure — a 1-4 record in the final.
Over the last 14 seasons, Elliott’s program has been on an unequaled run of dominance, appearing in 10 Finals Fours since 2008 and and playing in six championship matches since 2009. No other schools can match either of those accomplishments. But the win in 2012 was the only title secured by the Longhorns over that stretch — and just the second in school history — with losses in 2009, 2015, 2016, and 2020.
“We’re excited to be here to live another day and to have an opportunity to get to the top of the mountain,” Elliott said on Friday. “We’ve got a lot of respect for what Louisville does and the competitive team they have. They’re extremely well coached and we’ve got to get our team organized so that we can play Texas volleyball and then have a great chance to do what we set out to accomplish.”
Led by outside hitter Logan Eggleston, who become the first Texas player to win the AVCA National Player of the Year award this week, the Longhorns are deep, talented, and experienced, utilizing a combination of longtime veterans like middle blockers Asjia O’Neal and Molly Phillips and additions from the transfer portal like libero Zoe Fleck, the Big 12 Libero of the Year, and setter Saige Ka’aha’aina-Torres. Outside hitter Madisen Skinner, a Kentucky transfer, has national title-winning experience after helping the Wildcats defeat the Longhorns in 2020 and was a key addition after Elliott pursued her relentlessly in the transfer portal.
Behind the precision setting of Ka’aha’aina-Torres, Texas leads the nation in hitting percentage at .335 — O’Neal ranks third nationally at .436 — with plenty of balance and depth on the inside and outside. Eggleston averages 4.22 kills per set.
“We have so many weapons and it takes a lot of pressure off of us knowing that our teammates can step in and make a game-changing play,” Skinner said. “It’s super nice to be able to have a ton of people capable of amazing things and just knowing we can lean on each other and you don’t have to do it all by yourself.”
For Eggleston, O’Neal, and Phillips, the matchup with Louisville has a revenge factor — the Cardinals came into Gregoy Gym in 2019, won the first two sets, and upset the Longhorns in five.
Louisville has already made history, becoming the first Cardinals team to play for a national championship, as well as the first ACC team to do so. If Louisville does win, Dani Busboom Kelly will become the first woman catch to secure a national title.
The Cardinals will pose something of a unique challenge for the Longhorns — star outside hitters Anna DeBeer and Claire Chaussee are rather undersized with each listed at 6’0, but both are extraordinary athletes who are dangerous hitting from the back row, swings that are difficult to block and will force Texas defenders to make choices about committing to the middle or double teaming whichever hitter happens to be on the outside.
“They do a lot of things similar to what Nebraska does — they hit the high hands, flat hands, they work the ball around the court, and very efficient in attack,” Elliott said. “We’ve just got to try to slow it down. We’re not gonna stop it, we’ve just got to keep it in a container and get some good touches and our hand positioning and where we are will be critical.”
Chaussee had a game-high 25 kills against Pittsburgh to win the Final Four matchup in five sets.
DeBeer, along with libero Elena Scott, also serve at a high level — Scott has 40 service aces on the season with DeBeer adding 29 despite missing time with a knee injury. Opposite hitter Aiko Jones leads Louisville with 44 service aces.
“They need to get us off the net so we’re out of system,” Phillips said. “We’ve been facing it a lot throughout the entire season and in a lot of our games, but also we just have really great servers in practice. So we’re facing really tough serves in practice, which is making us a lot better, but I think our passers have done a really great job of setting Saige up to get the ball distributed pretty much to all of our hitters. And so it’s going to be a key for us tomorrow to make sure we’re just passing it high and off the net and able to run our offense.”
Defensively, 6’4 middle blocker PK Kong’s length was a huge issue for the Pittsburgh attackers as Kong notched 11 blocks against the Panthers. The Cardinals had 19 total blocks along with 10 service aces.
A slow start against San Diego resulted in the Toreros winning the opening set as Eggleston struggled in attack and at the service line, Texas hitters couldn’t find the court in general, and Elliott had to make adjustments with his blockers, who were getting too high and needed to lower their hands.
So the Longhorns will have to do a better job of managing emotions early on and getting into the match more quickly against a dangerous Cardinals team, but the response from Texas on Thursday was a strong indication of this team’s resilience.
“I think our team really came together between that first and second set and kind of just made the decision that we weren’t going to let this game get away from us and we performed really well for the rest of the game. So we did a great job,” Ka’aha’aina-Torres said.
Now it’s time for the Horns to show that resolve one more time to bring the championship trophy back to Austin.
How to watch
Time: 7 p.m. Central