OMAHA Neb. - The University of Oregon volleyball team (29-4) extended its greatest season in school history with a 3-1 NCAA Regional Final win over host Nebraska (26-7) Friday and earned its first-ever Final Four invitation in school history.
After losing the first set, 25-15, the fifth-seeded Ducks came back to win the next three sets at the CenturyLink Center, 25-22, 25-18, 25-17 over the fourth-seeded Huskers. The victory - the Ducks' first in three series meetings (and first since 1986) - cemented a bid to Thursday's NCAA semifinal in Louisville against top-seeded Penn State.
"This was a good win for us, but it's also just a step along the way to where we ultimately want to go," Oregon head coach Jim Moore said. "We knew that how we handled the atmosphere here was vital. I told the players before the match that the Nebraska fans are always some of the best in the country and certainly the most knowledgeable. They can take you out of a match, but we kept our cool, and as the match went on, we continued to apply more and more pressure defensively."
Offensively for Oregon, Pac-12 Player of the Year Alaina Bergsma rang up a match-high 23 kills to lead the team for the 22nd time this season. That kill tally was also the team's third-highest of the campaign in a non-five-set match (behind her 32 at WSU and Liz Brenner's 26 vs. BYU on Friday).
The All-American and redshirt senior from Chandler, Ariz., also hit .429 - her 11th +.400 total of the campaign after she had only two errors on 49 attempts. On defense, her 11 digs marked her seventh double-double and 15th career-wise for the Ducks.
UO featured two more hitters with double-digit kill figures and +.300 marks - junior middle blocker Ariana Williams (13K, .500) and senior outside hitter Katherine Fischer (12K, .367). With only two errors on 20 attempts, Williams logged her eighth +.500 total of the season, while Fischer posted her 11th +.300 total of '12.
Leading UO to a .291 team hitting mark, Pac-12 Setter of the Year Lauren Plum logged 52 assists. The Poway, Calif., native also came away with 14 digs for her eighth season double-double of and 27th career-wise.
Also on defense, senior libero Haley Jacob led UO in digs (21) for the 26th time this year, thanks to her ninth +20-dig match of the season and 23rd career-wise.
Sophomore outside hitter Liz Brenner followed closely behind in digs (18), and added nine kills. Her three blocks tied for the team high with freshman middle blocker Canace Finley.
At the service line, senior Kellie Kawasaki paced Oregon in aces for the eighth time this year (2), and had her fifth multi-ace match of the campaign. Brenner, Plum and freshman Martenne Bettendorf added solo aces, and the latter's was her first of the season.
After the match, Bergsma was named the Omaha NCAA Regional Player of the Tournament, and Williams and Plum were tabbed to the seven-person, all-tourney squad in a vote by the media.
Team-wise in the match-up between the Pac-12 and Big Ten runners-up, UO held edges in hitting (.291-.245), kills (58-57), aces (5-2), fewest service errors (5-6) and blocks (8.5-8.0); and the teams tied in assists (54-54).
Oregon's digs tally was its third-best overall of 2012, and tied its high in a non-five set match with Friday's mark vs. West Coast Conference Co-Champions BYU. Its block tally (8.5) also was its fifth-best on the season after it logged 10 vs. NCAA advancers Dayton (3 sets) and #2 seed Stanford (5 sets) and in three-set victories over Colorado and UCSB.
Nebraska category leaders Saturday included Gina Mancuso (16 kills, 15 digs), Morgan Broekkhuis (16K, .406), Lara Dykstra (15 digs, 1 ace), and Hayley Thramer (5 blocks), and another notable effort was turned in by Hannah Werth (10 kills, .250, 14 digs).
In front of an understandably-partisan crowd of 9,382, Nebraska used its near-home court advantage to break a 3-3 tie to go on a 12-4, first-set run that was spurred by three kills by NU frosh Meghan Haggerty. Up 15-7, the Huskers continued to pull away with a series of two-point spurts, and scored their final offensive point at 24-15, on the fifth kill of the set by junior Morgan Broekhuis. In its 25-15 win, Nebraska made only one team hitting error on 29 attempts and hit .621 (compared with a more than respectable .345 mark for UO).
In the second set the Ducks bounced right back thanks to four early kills by Bergsma that gave Oregon a 6-2 lead and forced Nebraska's first timeout of the match. NU eventually battled back to tie matters at 11-11 on a three-point run after a pair of Husker kills and block. Brenner answered with two quick kills, and UO never trailed in the set from that point on. NU closed within one at 18-17, but a service error and attack error gave UO a 20-17 advantage, and forced another NU timeout. The Ducks ended the 25-22 set with a pair of kills by Bergsma, block assist by Plum, Fischer and Williams, and kill from Williams on the final point. The Ducks hit .310 for the set, compared with .217 for the Huskers, and the teams posted 2.5 and 3.0 blocks for the stanza, respectively.
In the third set, the teams stayed within two points of each other until a 7-2 Duck run at 9-8 ballooned into a 16-10 lead, thanks to a pair of kills by both Bergsma and Williams, another by Fischer, and a NU setting and attack error. After a Husker timeout, another three-point run ended by a bad Husker set made it 19-13, and the Ducks later capped the 25-18 period on Fischer's fourth kill of the set. Led by five kills from Williams and Bergsma, UO again topped .300 for the period (.318), and held Nebraska to .205, and both teams logged a pair of blocks.
In the fourth set, the again-vociferous Husker Nation did their part to rally on the home squad as defense was at a premium (with UO hitting .194 and NU .028). The two teams were tied six times through Brenner's block at 15-15 and Williams' only kill of the set at 16-16. After that, the Ducks went up 18-16 on a block by Finley and Plum of the All-America returnee Mancuso to force Nebraska's first timeout. Four plays later, two kills by Bergsma and and an attack error by Mancuso helped put UO up 21-17, and forced the Huskers' final timeout. Another Finley and Brenner block assist made it 23-17, and Bergsma's sixth kill of the set and Plum's ace gave UO its 23rd and final points in the 25-17 finale. For the set, UO added three blocks and 19 digs, compared with two and 16, respectively, for Nebraska.
"We were calm early, but might have calmed down too much," Moore said. (In that first set) Once we had a few things go wrong at the start, we lost our focus for a while. We ultimately bounced back and were able to play hard defensively from then on. In the fourth set, I thought we really showed our toughness. After Nebraska rallied and got the crowd back into it at 11-9, we called a timeout. Even with all the noise and excitement, our players stayed really calm in the huddle. Afterwards, they continued to play within themselves, just like the other critical times - that was key."
The Ducks also raised their school record tally for wins in a season to 29 after it posted a best-ever second-place Pac-12 finish (and 16-4 league mark) two weeks ago. Saturday's outcome also upped its postseason mark to 9-5 in six postseason bids under Moore. For comparison's sake, UO sported a 1-4 ledger before his arrival in its four other NCAA tourney trips (in 1984, 86, '87 and '89).
On individual Oregon all-time lists, Bergsma continued her her climb up career categories in points (third, 1,539.5) and kills (fifth, 1,396). The third-year Duck also continues to stand fifth in hitting (.282).
Others ranked top 10 in career categories included Jacob (digs, second, 1,547), Plum (assists, second, 4,102), Fischer (points, fifth, 1,410; digs, seventh, 1,167; aces, eighth, 113; kills, 10th, 1,206) and Williams (hitting, third, .317).
This year on Oregon season-best lists, Bergsma stands top 10 in points (second, 602.5), points per set (second, 5.43), kills per set (fifth, 4.93), hitting (sixth, .340) and kills (seventh, 547).
Other sporting similar top-10 Duck season rankings include Plum (assists per set, second, 13.39; assists, third, 1,526), Williams (hitting, fourth, .353), Jacob (digs, fifth, 495; digs per set, sixth, 4.46) and Brenner (points per set, fifth, 4.37; points, ninth, 488.5).
UO advanced to Saturday's final after it beat #12 seed BYU, 3-1, in Omaha on Friday. Last weekend in Eugene, the Ducks topped Northern Colorado and AVCA No.-13 ranked Dayton both by 3-0 counts in the NCAA First and Second Rounds at Matthew Knight Arena.
Looking ahead, the NCAA semifinals will be held on Thursday, December 13 at 4 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. PT in Louisville, Kent. The 32nd NCAA Championship will follow two days later on Saturday, December 15 at 4 p.m. PT.
All three matches will be televised live by ESPN2 and ESPN3.com.