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Texas sweeps No. 1 Wisconsin to set up NCAA volleyball final against Kentucky

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                                Texas’ Jhenna Gabriel sets the ball for Asjia O’Neal during the first set against Wisconsin.


    Texas’ Jhenna Gabriel sets the ball for Asjia O’Neal during the first set against Wisconsin.

OMAHA, Neb. >> Texas used a powerful all-around performance to post a surprising three-set sweep of top-seeded and previously unbeaten Wisconsin in the NCAA women’s volleyball semifinals tonight.

No. 4 Texas (27-1) will play No. 2 Kentucky (23-1) in the championship match Saturday. The Wildcats advanced to their first final with a four-set victory over Washington.

The Longhorns will be making their seventh appearance in the final and first since 2016.

“We’re super fired up. It’s been a while,” said coach Jerritt Elliott, whose team will try to add to national titles won in 1988 and 2012.

Texas has beaten three straight opponents from the Big Ten to reach this point. The Longhorns posted 3-1 wins over Penn State and Nebraska before taking down the Badgers 26-24, 25-19, 25-23.

The Badgers (18-1) hadn’t been swept since the 2019 national championship match against Stanford.

Big 12 player of the year Logan Eggleston had 17 kills to lead the Longhorns. Skylar Fields had 12 kills and Asjia O’Neal and Brionne Butler added 11 apiece. Junior setter Jhenna Gabriel, a Maryknoll graduate, had 42 assists and eight digs in the win.

The match ended when Texas won a challenge on the final point. Eggleston was initially ruled to have sent the ball out of bounds on a kill attempt. Video showed the ball touched a Wisconsin player on the way out.

“Thank goodness I had another challenge there,” Elliott said. “I was thankful I had one in my pocket still.”

When referee Kaili Kimura signaled the point for Texas, the players came together in a celebratory huddle with their arms raised.

“It was a long minute to wait,” Butler said. “Once we heard the call, it was just a free-for-all. We were so excited, so pumped up. The wait was well worth it. I’ll tell you that.”

Texas won an opening set in which neither team led by more than three points. The Longhorns broke open the second set with an 11-5 run, and after Wisconsin got back to 21-18, they scored four of the last five points.

“There was never a time we gave up or got down on ourselves,” Wisconsin’s Sydney Hilley said. “Texas is a really good team and they gave it their best, and ours wasn’t good enough tonight.”

Kentucky’s 25-18, 23-25, 25-23, 25-17 win over Washington marked another breakthrough for the Wildcats.

“You can see the excitement and enthusiasm in the players, and no one will ever take this away from them,” Kentucky coach Craig Skinner said. “It’s hard to get too far ahead of ourselves and have too much excitement because there’s a huge task ahead. We’ve recruited great players and we have a great staff. For us to be living a dream like this, there’s no monetary value or material thing you can put on that.”

The Wildcats lost a set for the first time in the tournament and came from six points down to win the third. But their offense, No. 1 in the nation statistically, was in top form in the fourth set and kept sixth-seeded Washington from continuing its improbable run in the tournament.

“Our team showed serious toughness,” Skinner said.

Avery Skinner led the Wildcats with 19 kills and national player of the year Madison Lilley had a season-high 63 set assists and 14 digs.

Washington (20-4) had become the first team to win three five-set matches in an NCAA tournament, and midway through the match it looked as if the Huskies might force this one to go the distance.

But Kentucky committed only three attack errors in the fourth set, hit .520 and finished off the Huskies when Alli Stumler pounded her 13th kill.

The Wildcats avenged a loss to Washington that knocked them out of the 2019 tournament in the regional semifinals.

Samantha Drechsel had 18 kills and Ella May Powell had 41 assists to lead the Huskies.

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