VB Final Four Is Set: Nebraska, Illinois Still Alive
If you were looking for a good reason why a solid Purdue team ended up with 8 conference losses, here’s one: all 8 losses came against tournament teams, and 6 of them were against Elite Eight teams.
The Big Tenteen reasserted its dominance as the premier conference in women’s volleyball, taking four of the eight regional final spots and getting two teams through to the Final Four for the fourth straight season and 6 of the last 7 seasons. Nebraska hasn’t lost a set in the tournament, and Illinois has only dropped two: one or both of those stats will change Thursday night as they square off for the third time this season.
The other semifinal features a rematch as well, and it’s possibly more anticipated than the Nebraska-Illinois match: Stanford and BYU meet for the first time since August 31, when the Cardinal dropped a five-set match in Provo. Stanford hasn’t lost since, carrying a 32-match winning streak into the opening match of the Final Four against the Cougars, who won their first 27 matches before a stunning sweep at Loyola Marymount dropped them out of the top seed in the tournament and nearly cost them a chance to host a regional.
Match summaries below.
Stanford Regional results
No surprises here, as top-seeded Stanford rolled 16-seed Washington State 3-1 (they had beaten the Cougars 3-0 and 3-1 during Pac-12 play) and 8-seed Penn State swept Washington 3-0, spoiling the Pac-12’s hopes for a rematch in the final. The Huskies were swept twice by Stanford, so it likely wouldn’t have gone well, but the Cardinal had also swept Penn State in Palo Alto. This time, the Nittany Lions did take a set; in fact, they took the first set easily, 25-18. They had their chances in the second set, but couldn’t quite close it out, and a 23-25 loss sent the teams to the locker room even at 1-1. Stanford came out with a purpose and pulled away in the third, 20-25; the fourth set was merely a formality as the hosts cruised, 16-25.
The Nittany Lions caught a small break in not having to face 9-seed Creighton, but they likely would have advanced anyway, and to be honest I’m not sure there’s a team playing as well as Stanford is right now. I watched them play Washington State during Pac-12 play, and they made a top-25 team look like a mid-major team.
BYU Regional results
There would be no second upset for Michigan, as the Wolverines had a horrific first set against 5-seed Texas, dropping the first ten points and losing set one 10-25. They rallied to take the second 29-27, but like Penn State, they couldn’t close, falling 27-29 in the third, and the Longhorns dispatched them in set four, 19-25. Still, Michigan did well to get as far as they did, taking out Pitt on the road and playing Texas well in a neutral environment.
On the other side, 4-seed BYU looked every bit like a top-four seed, losing the opening set to unseeded Florida 23-25. The 2017 runner-up team did not do well in the next two sets, as the Cougars made the Gators look like an average SEC team, 25-13 and 25-17. They had a couple of good runs in the final set, but BYU was simply too much, and the hosts advanced with a 25-19 win.
Illinois Regional results
The third-seeded Illini are still on fire, with their winning streak now at 17 matches; they’ve gone to five sets just twice and have eight sweeps during that run. One of them was in the regional semis against 14-seed Marquette, as the Warriors were swept aside 25-19, 25-21 and 25-16. The expected matchup with 6-seed Wisconsin came to pass as the Badgers had absolutely no trouble with unseeded San Diego, blowing past them 25-13, 25-16 and 25-10.
It was not quite a surprise that the final was 3-1, as the two teams played to the same result in both regular-season meeting, but those were won by the road team, and a sold-out Huff Hall was not going to be the place for a third road win. Illinois opened with a reasonable 25-19 win, then got steamrolled in set two 15-25. While that seemed to set the table for a five-set match, it didn’t play out that way, as the Illini had just enough at the end of the last two sets to keep their neighbors at bay, squeaking out 25-22 and 25-23 wins.
Minnesota Regional results
Nobody outside of Eugene saw this coming: the team with a 19-1 record in Big Tenteen play, the one with a chance to play all six tournament matches at home, that one? Took exactly one set in their regional. They won the opener 25-21; that might have been a sign that the 15-seed Ducks were not the sitting kind. I have not yet looked to see if this match is available on BTN, but if it is, you should watch it. Have you ever seen an 80-point set? The answer is no, and neither have I, and that’s because we missed the 39-41 thriller on Friday. Yep, Oregon basically had to play nearly two sets just to take one; fortunately, it was the second set and not any other. Not sure how two teams would recover if they had to play another set right away! The Ducks also took set three, 21-25, and while Minnesota played valiantly to force a fifth set, they couldn’t quite do it, losing 24-26 in the fourth. In the meantime, 7-seed Nebraska had no trouble with 10-seed Kentucky, knocking out the SEC champs 25-17, 25-20, 25-23.
So instead of another all-Big Tenteen regional final, we had the 7 and 15 seeds squaring off. Oregon played well, but as the announcers mentioned, they may have been a bit tired, not just from the exhausting match Friday and the thrill of a huge upset, but also because the Pac-12 does not play matches on consecutive nights (if you’ve seen where the schools are located, you know why - you can get to Cal and Stanford on back-to-back nights, and obviously USC-UCLA, but no other traveling partners are that close), so Nebraska was likely better prepared for this. 25-22, 25-23, 25-17, and Nebraska was in its fourth straight Final Four, winning in front of a semi-home crowd (let’s face it: Nebraska fans travel well in any sport, and Minnesota is not that far away for them).
Final Four schedule
Thursday, 7 PM: #1 Stanford vs #2 BYU in Minneapolis (TV: ESPN with a DataCenter on ESPN3; stat tracker)
Massey could be right - these may well be the two best teams in the country. I wouldn’t say so, but I will say that if you watch this match, you won’t be disappointed. Whether or not BYU is #2, they’re definitely a talented squad, and with the exception of a single match, they’ve played really good volleyball this year. They’ll be quite the challenge for the Cardinal, who are getting exactly what they’d hoped for: a chance to avenge their single loss.
They’ll do so, and they’ll get one step closer to breaking a tie with Penn State for most championships (7). Stanford 3, BYU 1 (25-17, 23-25, 26-24, 25-21) (Verdict: Somewhat right, especially the first set (25-15), but BYU wasn’t really close in any of the three sets.)
Thursday, 30 minutes after first match: #4 Nebraska vs #3 Illinois in Minneapolis (TV: ESPN with a DataCenter on ESPN3; stat tracker)
Nebraska hasn’t lost since falling in four sets to the Illini in Lincoln. Illinois actually dropped two of their next three after losing 1-3 in Champaign; of course, beating Wisconsin and Minnesota is a challenge for anyone, even one of the best teams in the country. As it turns out, the Illini won’t get another crack at Minnesota, but they’ll be tested just the same. There are few things more dangerous than a Huskers team that gets their problems figured out, but one of them may well be this Illini team. It’s a shame they’re meeting in the semis, but somebody has to play there - we can’t have a four-way match in the championship.
This one will be worth staying up late for. Anything less than five sets would practically be a disappointment, and I don’t think we’ll be disappointed. Illinois 3, Nebraska 2 (25-22, 18-25, 26-24, 23-25, 15-12) (Verdict: Nailed the first set score, and had 23-25 correct but in the wrong set. Might have had 15-12 if that odd reversal hadn’t happened, but instead Nebraska’s comeback made me wrong. What I was exactly right about? This one was, in fact, worth staying up late for.)
Saturday, 9 PM: Stanford/BYU vs Nebraska/Illinois (TV: ESPN2; stat tracker)
The problem with teams on a roll is that sometimes it’s hard to tell how well they’re playing, especially when they’re really good: how much better is the #1 team than the #2 or #3 or #4? And what happens if one or both have a bad match? I don’t think we’ll have to worry about the latter, but you never know - not all epic matchups turn out to be worth the wait.
I think this one will be. Massey’s predictor says Stanford in 4; I think the semi-partisan crowd will help Illinois just a bit, not that they need much help … but I don’t think it’ll be enough. Stanford is just too good this year, and it’s a shame Illinois will have a solid season come to an end because of them. Stanford 3, Illinois 2 (27-25, 20-25, 26-24, 24-26, 16-14) (Verdict: Partial credit for getting the winner and number of sets right, even though I had the losing team wrong. I did have set one going to Stanford in overtime, Stanford’s opponent winning set two, but the next two were blowouts and the fifth set did not go into overtime, although again an odd reversal shortens the match a bit. Still a great match, though.)