Just when it seemed Washington’s volleyball season was about to be finished, it wasn’t.
Down 11-5 to Louisville in the fifth and deciding set, the Huskies seemed minutes away from being knocked out of the NCAA tournament.
But after UW got a sideout, senior Maria Bogomolova served six straight winning points to give Washington a 12-11 lead. Soon after, the Huskies were celebrating a 25-23, 21-25, 21-25, 25-14, 15-13 victory Sunday in Omaha, Nebraska, to earn a spot in the Elite Eight for the fourth time in six seasons.
“I’d have a hard time thinking of one better,” UW coach Keegan Cook said of the comeback, against the No. 11-seeded Cardinals. “That’s up there, if not No. 1. Just the combination of the moment and what it took and the quality of the opponent. Just really proud of our team.”
The Huskies (19-3), the No. 6 seed in the tournament, won’t get long to celebrate. They face unseeded Pittsburgh at 9 a.m. (Pacific time) Monday for a berth in the Final Four.
The Huskies have not reached the Final Four since 2013 and Cook said before the tournament that he felt a responsibility to get the program back to that spot.
The Huskies, if you go by seeding, would be favored to beat the Panthers. But Pittsburgh likely won’t be intimidated. It opened with a win over Long Island University, then swept No. 14 seed Utah and defeated No. 3 seed Minnesota in a five-set thriller Sunday.
“I told them that this was not our moment,” Cook told his players after the game. “This turnaround is brutal. We are going to play Pittsburgh in I don’t know how many hours. It feels like about eight hours, but we’ve got an opportunity to bring the program to where we want to be.”
It became evident after just a few points that the two conference champions (UW won the Pac-12 and Louisville won the Atlantic Coast Conference) would play a tight, competitive match.
Washington took a 15-11 lead in the first set, and although Louisville (15-3) came back to tie the score twice, the Huskies held on and finally won the set on a kill by Samantha Drechsel.
Louisville used a 6-0 run to take a 13-8 lead in the second set, and the Huskies never recovered, unable to get closer than three points the rest of the way.
The Huskies fell behind 7-2 in the third set, but quickly rallied and went on a 12-4 run to take a 14-11 lead. But Louisville was resilient and took the lead for good after the teams were tied at 17, although Washington saved two set points before finally succumbing.
The Huskies came out strong in the fourth set, taking control with a 5-0 run (four points on Ella May Powell’s serve) to take a 10-3 lead. This time, the Huskies kept control, building on their lead and setting up the fifth set.
In the fifth set Sunday, Louisville took a 7-1 lead and UW called a timeout. The Huskies scored three straight points to make it 7-4, but Louisville regained control at 11-5.
Or at least it seemed that way, until the Huskies got on a roll with Bogomolova serving. With the score tied at 13, the Huskies won a point on a block by Claire Hoffman and Marin Grote. On match point, Louisville sent a kill attempt wide, completing a remarkable comeback.
Cook said he never lost confidence and junior setter Powell said she never doubted that her team would come back.
“As the deficit grew, I just knew that we had more work to do,” said Powell, whose team improved to 6-2 in five-set matches. “I don’t think I ever feel doubt with this team. We kept our composure. … We just did it one point at a time and we weren’t going to get it all back at once.
“I’ve never been down like that and made a comeback like that before. This team showed a lot of grit and I’m so proud of us. This is a big defining moment for us.