MADISON, Wis. >> The “what ifs” will be volleyed about from now until the volleyballs are rolled out for spring practice.
What if Hawaii had won Set 1 against Nebraska?
The 18th-ranked Rainbow Wahine had their chances in the opening 39 minutes of Friday’s NCAA tournament third-round match with the No. 5 Cornhuskers. Hawaii just couldn’t capitalize on them, unable to convert two set points, unable to stop Nebraska’s third attempt at finishing it.
The pattern the Wahine couldn’t overcome was giving up scoring runs against the Cornhuskers. Nebraska, eyeing its fourth consecutive final four appearance, ran off points late in Set 1 and early in Sets 2 and 3 to eliminate Hawaii 29-27, 25-22, 25-19 at the UW Field House.
The ’Huskers (28-4) meet host and fifth-ranked Wisconsin (25-6) today in an All-Big Ten regional final at 1 p.m. Hawaii time. The Badgers, who eliminated Texas A&M in Friday’s earlier match, 25-20, 25-17, 25-23, swept the ’Huskers twice during the conference season.
The loss, the Wahine’s first in 14 matches, capped what many consider a resurgence in the storied program. The talk in the national circles was that Hawaii “was back.”
Among the highlights of the 26-4 season were:
>> Being seeded and hosting the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2013;
>> Advancing to the NCAA third round for the first time since 2016;
>> Returning to the Top 25 national poll after nearly a two-year absence;
>> Earning their first Big West title in coach Robyn Ah Mow’s three seasons;
>> Getting the first sellout of the Stan Sheriff Center since 2013, the 15th for the program.
“It was an awesome season,” said Ah Mow, the Big West and Pacific North Region Coach of the Year. “I wouldn’t want to change this season for anything. They worked hard from start to finish.
“They battled all season, they battled out there today. They were down, but they kept coming back.”
Ah Mow conceded to the frustration of not closing early against Nebraska. It was reminiscent of leading Baylor 17-10 in Set 2 only to lose it 25-23 en route to being swept.
But the former Wahine All-American setter preferred to trade the “what if” for the “what was” and “what will be.” The “was” was a team with nine newcomers, including five freshmen, coming together so quickly that the Wahine won their first 10 matches and knocked off three ranked teams during that span.
The “was” also was the last 13 matches prior to Friday that Hawaii needed to win in order to claim the Big West title outright as well as defeating No. 20 San Diego last Saturday that lifted the Wahine into the third round for the first time since senior Norene Iosia’s freshman season.
“I would say this moment tops my freshman year, definitely,” said Iosia, a setter-hitter who leaves as one of the best all-around players in program history. “Playing for Hawaii definitely makes the sport of volleyball more meaningful.
“What we wear on our shirts isn’t just a logo. Behind that is such a bigger meaning of family and work ethic and just love all around. That’s something I would say this team did a very good job of grasping very quickly. Gelling together and representing the whole state of Hawaii.”
Iosia is one of five who finished her Wahine career Friday, ending it with her 20th double-double (19 assists-13 digs). She leaves ranked tied for second in aces with Martina Cincerova (139), eighth in digs (1,175) and ninth in assists (3,148).
As a first-team all-region pick, Iosia is guaranteed to make one of the All-America teams that will be announced next week (first, second, third or honorable mention). Also under consideration will be region honorable mentions Hanna Hellvig, the Big West Freshman of the Year, and freshman middle Amber Igiede.
Hellvig and Igiede are among the five true freshmen returning to the gym for spring ball, along with sophomores Janelle Gong and Kamalei Krug. Also back are rising seniors Brooke Van Sickle, who had tied for match-high honors with 14 kills on Friday; hitter Jolie Rasmussen and defensive specialist Kyra Hanawahine.
Besides Iosia, Hawaii loses hitters McKenna Ross and Kirsten Sibley, libero Rika Okino and setter Bailey Choy. With the loss of both setters and a commitment from incoming freshman Kate Lang, the Wahine will be looking for another setter in the next few months.
The Wahine also signed Hungarian national Anna Kiraly, a 6-foot-3 middle for 2020.
A spring match has not yet been scheduled.
Despite its size advantage at most positions, Nebraska only outblocked Hawaii 8-7. The biggest thing the ’Huskers did was disrupt the Wahine’s middle attack, where junior Sky Williams and Igiede had ranked 1-3 in conference hitting percentage (.401 and .359 coming into Friday). Williams had three kills, hitting .000, and Igiede two kills, hitting negative .200.
Leading Nebraska into today’s fourth round were junior hitters Lexi Sun (14 kills, .619) and Jazz Sweet (12 kills, .345). Freshman libero Kenzie Knuckles had a match-high 14 digs.
The rest of the third round went according to seed with the exception of the Austin regional where host and second-seeded Texas was upset by unseeded Louisville, 3-2. The Cardinals meet seventh-seeded Minnesota, which defeated No. 10 Florida also in five.
At Baylor, the top-seeded Bears turned back No. 16 seed Purdue, 3-1, and will face eighth-seeded Washington. The Huskies defeated No. 9 Kentucky in four.
At Stanford, 11th-seeded Penn State survived against unseeded Cincinnati 3-2. The Nittany Lions move on to face defending national champion Stanford, which held off Utah, 3-2.