Has there been a more remarkable run to the volleyball Final Four?
It’s hard to imagine one more improbable than the one the Washington Huskies have pulled off.
One day after using a big rally to reach the Elite Eight, the No. 6-seeded Huskies (20-3) rallied from two sets down to defeat unseeded Pittsburgh 20-25, 21-25, 25-16, 26-24, 15-9 on Monday in Omaha, Nebraska.
It is the Huskies’ first Final Four berth since 2013. Washington won its only national championship in 2005. In the semifinals Thursday, the Huskies will play Kentucky (22-1), which was a 25-23, 25-20, 25-16 winner over Purdue (16-7), in Omaha at 4 p.m. Pacific time. The other national semifinal will be Wisconsin (16-0) against Texas (26-1).
Washington, which had a bye in the first round, needed five sets to defeat Dayton last week in the second round after losing the third and fourth sets. The Huskies trailed Louisville 2-1 in sets and then were down 11-5 in the fifth set before rallying Sunday.
Washington coach Keegan Cook couldn’t remember a better comeback. Well, Monday’s match is up there too.
“The whole tournament feels like a comeback right now,” said Cook, whose team has played in three of the eight five-set matches in the entire tournament. “That was just a great display of who this team has been all year, and when the stakes have been highest, they have been their best. That’s what makes a team special.”
Said senior outside hitter Samantha Drechsel: “I think we know what’s possible with this team, and we’re going to fight to the end. And going into the third set today, I think we were, ‘Hey, we can come back. We can do it. If there is a time to do it, it’s now.’ “
Washington got off to a slow start in the first set, falling behind 22-15. The Huskies scored four consecutive points, then apparently a fifth before the point was overturned after a coach’s challenge.
So instead of it being 22-20 Pitt, it was 23-19 and the Panthers (19-5) finished off the set from there.
Pittsburgh used a 6-0 run to take a 15-10 lead in the second set. Washington rallied, cutting the deficit twice to two points, the last time at 22-20, but Pitt held on to take a 2-0 set lead.
It became clear early in the third set that the Huskies would not go down without a fight.
“If we were going to go out, we were going to go out playing our style of volleyball and not what we were doing,” said junior setter Ella May Powell.
Indeed, Washington looked like a different team in the third set, dominating throughout in a 25-16 victory.
The Huskies took an 18-12 lead in the fourth set, then had to hold off a Pittsburgh rally to win an intense 26-24 thriller that had four late challenges by the coaches, with Pitt winning the first two, then UW the next two.
Washington took early control in the fifth set — unlike the match Sunday against Louisville — and was never threatened.
“I don’t think I ever had a doubt, and I know it’s kind of weird to say that,” Powell said.
The Pac-12 champion Huskies improved to 7-2 in five-set matches.
“You can’t fake confidence in fifth sets and we’ve been in a lot of them, and we’ve won more than we’ve lost so I had total confidence in them in the fifth set,” Cook said.
Cook was an assistant coach for UW in 2013 when the team reached its last Final Four, losing to Penn State in the semifinals. He had led the team to the Elite Eight three times in his five seasons as head coach and said before the tournament he felt a great responsibility to get the program back to the Final Four.
The coach got choked up and fought back tears when asked what it meant to accomplish that goal.
“It’s a little surreal right now,” he said. “It’s the greatest privilege and responsibility to coach a program of this caliber, and you have to know what’s at stake. You make a lot of big commitments to some very talented people with big dreams and it’s your responsibility to get them there. I am just really happy for these kids.”
It has been a long season for the Huskies, and Drechsel and Powell said the weight of what they accomplished had yet to fully sink in.
The team began workouts in August not knowing if there would be a season because of the coronavirus. It was delayed several months — and played with no nonconference games — but the wait has proved worth it for Washington.
“To continue growing from August to late April, and to ask your players to be uncomfortable week after week and day after day while trying to win a Pac-12 title … their resilience is incredible,” Cook said. “The work they put in has taken care of them in this tournament.”