LAS VEGAS — A Hawaii volleyball team that reveled in its relentlessness all through the Western Athletic Conference season crashed and burned last night in the final of the WAC Tournament.
» MVP: Liz McArthur (USU)
Utah State lit the match.
The third-seeded Aggies (24-8) and their four seniors will fly into their first NCAA Tournament since 2005 on the wings of shock and awe, after sweeping the third-ranked Rainbow Wahine, 25-15, 27-25, 26-24. While most of an Orleans Arena crowd of 2,718 watched in shock, the Aggies were awesome.
The 27-2 Wahine? Not so much, though it won’t prevent them from getting an at-large bid into the NCAA Tournament Sunday. UH coach Dave Shoji did not even think the upset would have much impact on seedings.
“We weren’t going to get a good seed anyway,” he said. “I fully expect we’re going to get around a 12th seed.
“I’m really happy for Utah State. I thought they were a really good team going into the WAC. They are a good team. They struggled in the middle of their season in the WAC but people don’t realize the WAC is way stronger in the middle and they lost some close matches. They are a legitimate NCAA team.”
He and his team spoke so long after the match they missed the post-game program. USU became the first team other than Hawaii or Brigham Young to grab the WAC Tournament trophy and four of its players were named all-tournament, with Liz McArthur the MVP.
“There was a lot to talk about,” Shoji said. “First, I think emotionally we just weren’t into it as much as we needed to be. It’s no excuse, but it’s understandable to go 20 matches in a row (without losing a set) … truly inside I don’t think we thought we had a chance to lose. When that’s inside you, then you just can’t turn the key in the middle of the match. It happens all the time in college athletics.”
The Wahine never found a rhythm, grew thoroughly frustrated and played with none of the composure and consistency that brought them into the final with a 62-set winning streak.
Instead, they looked like all those WAC opponents who appeared so hapless against them the last two months — starting with Utah State Sept. 23.
The Aggies had won their first 11 matches and were receiving votes in the poll. Then they went into a 7-8 slide, getting clobbered twice by UH. They will take a six-match winning streak into the NCAA Tournament.
“We got a little complacent, like winning is easy,” coach Grayson DuBose said. “And then we got kicked in the butt a couple times and learned it is not easy and we need to re-focus.
“We just re-set and focused on how we compete every day in practice and how we compete in every game.”
Hawaii had many of those same thoughts last night.
“When you expect to win you don’t always have that deep-down desire and preparation,” Shoji said. “I feared that all along here and tonight it came true.”
UH will take a long list of snapped streaks, and whatever good it can gain from last night’s utter disappointment, into the NCAA Tournament.
It came after its 13th consecutive WAC championship last night with a 23-match winning streak and the fifth-best set streak in NCAA history. It had not lost to a WAC team since Oct. 12, 2008, a span of 47 matches. It had not lost a WAC Tournament match since 1997.
In contrast, Utah State had not won a WAC Tournament match since falling to Hawaii in the 2005 final. DuBose wasn’t even the USU coach then. Today, he has authored two of the six WAC losses UH has suffered since joining the conference in 1996. This one came 23 hours after his team outlasted second-seeded New Mexico State in a 2-hour, 27-minute semifinal.
“I think we do two things very well,” DuBose said. “I think we can serve the ball tough and we can block. Those things were real evident tonight.”
“Every team has bad moments,” UH All-American Kanani Danielson said. “Today was just not our day. And Utah State … great. They out-hustled us.
“They usually don’t get this opportunity to play in the NCAAs. It’s a very nice incentive to play their hearts out.”
Shoji said the Aggies played “inspirational” volleyball, in stark contrast to his team. A championship was the Aggies’ only shot at the NCAA Tournament and they seized it from the start.
They gave the Wahine their worst WAC Tournament loss in the opening set, putting an exclamation point on it with six stuffs. Hawaii could not pass USU’s serves, stop its hitters or find an offense. For the second straight night, its block was no factor.
Shay Sorensen, one of the few non-senior USU starters, had 13 kills in 19 swings, hitting .684 in the match. She came in averaging two kills and hitting .220.
“We’ve got some issues with our team,” Shoji said. “We had four blocks tonight and five last night. That part of our game needs to be worked on. We knew exactly what they were going to do, but we couldn’t stop them.”
Balls dropped on the UH side and teammates ran into each other. Passes rarely put Dani Mafua in good position and her sets went awry. Utah State had six aces and just three serving errors in the match. The Wahine never came close to an ace, or finding any emotion to bring them out of their funk.
Worse yet, they got a look at what volleyball life will be like post-Danielson and it wasn’t pretty. She was totally frustrated in the opening set, with one kill and two errors in six swings.
She broke out of it with a flurry of points in the second set, pulling the Wahine to an 18-14 advantage with six kills in a 12-point span. But when she went to the backrow she took the UH offense with her.
The Aggies called their second timeout down 16-22. They scored 11 of the last 14 points behind Sorensen and Josselyn White — fighting off two set points -— to stun UH, again.
Danielson, who had half the UH kills in the final two sets, was all that was left of the offense in the final set, and Utah State knew it. She had 10 kills in the third, her 19th of the night fighting off one match point and her 20th tying it at 24.
Katie Astle, one of the USU seniors, slapped a kill to bring match point back. Sorensen, alone on the right yet again, buried it.
“It’s nothing magic,” DuBose said. “Those guys do a nice job and they play hard. They showed a lot of resiliency I thought. That second game, Hawaii is up 23-19 and we gut it out. I think that’s who we are as a team.”
The Wahine will take what they can out of last night and find out who they are. It was not all bad.
“I would hate to go into the playoffs next week and get down 0-1 or 0-2 and not have been in that situation for three months,” Shoji said. “I think it’s a good thing we went through this. I’m disappointed we lost but it could turn out to be a blessing in disguise. We could have a sense of urgency next week.”
>> Former Wahine Cayley Thurlby, Jen Roberts and Jen Carey, who all live on the Mainland now, came to Tuesday’s match. Last night Victoria Prince, the 2004 WAC Tournament MVP in her senior season at UH, showed up with boyfriend Kevin Federline.
>> Elizabeth Ka’aihue needs three digs to pass Tita Ahuna and move into second in career digs. She is 58 short of Kim Willoughby’s record of 1,440.
>> Until last night, Hawaii had not been swept since the 2008 NCAA Regional final.
>> Sunday’s NCAA Selection Show is on at 10 a.m. Hawaii time on ESPNews.