Wahington finally met its match.
After reaching the college volleyball Final Four with three dramatic wins, including two big comeback victories, the Huskies finally found an opponent, a deficit — and a blown call — that they couldn’t overcome.
No. 2 seed Kentucky ended No. 6 seed Washington’s season in the national semifinals with a 25-18, 23-25, 25-23, 25-17 win Thursday night in Omaha, Nebraska, avenging a loss to the Huskies in the Sweet 16 of the 2019 tournament.
“I am proud of our group. How can you not be?” UW coach Keegan Cook said after the match. “Getting the program back to this level and competing hard against an outstanding Kentucky team. A lot of gratitude for the women in that locker room.”
Perhaps the only surprise was that it didn’t go five sets after UW had become the first team in NCAA tournament history to reach the Final Four with three straight five-set victories.
The match might have gone five sets had it not been for a crucial missed call in the pivotal third set.
With Washington ahead 22-20, Kentucky had a clear net violation, but it was not called. The Huskies were out of challenges, having used all three — and winning two of the challenges. Cook could be seen complaining, but to no avail.
Instead of UW going ahead 23-20, Kentucky cut the deficit to 22-21. Then, after the score was tied at 23, Kentucky scored the final two points to notch its biggest comeback in a set this season.
That’s when the momentum turned. Kentucky (23-1) seized control and cruised in the fourth set, leaving the Huskies (20-4) and their fans to wonder, “what if?”
“In these matches, if you let it be close, then things outside your control can affect the match and that is always disappointing,” said Cook, adding, “I give them credit for chasing us down in that third set. If it was close and there were some calls that weren’t made, that’s just what happens.”
All-American setter Ella May Powell was more direct: “That sucks and it’s frustrating, really frustrating at that point. But it’s out of our control at that point. It’s hard that we didn’t have a challenge at that point, but that is how the game goes. It’s hard not to get caught in that sometimes. It’s a big moment, and it sucks. There aren’t a lot words for it.”
Cook said he doesn’t like to challenge many points early in the match, but he thought all three were good, and he wanted his team to “know that he was fighting for every point.”
The Huskies started slowly — just as they had against Pittsburgh to advance to the Final Four — with Kentucky winning the first set 25-18.
The Wildcats took control with four straight points after the score was tied at 13. Nine hitting errors in the opening set proved costly for UW.
The Huskies looked on the verge of going down 2-0 when Kentucky led 22-18 in the second set. But a sideout, followed by five great service points by Samantha Drechsel gave UW a 24-22 lead.
The Wildcats saved one set point before an attacking error gave UW a 25-23 win, Kentucky’s first lost set of the tournament.
The Huskies stepped up every facet of the game late in the second set, beginning with their serving. The kill percentage and blocking started improving, too, and UW seemed on the verge of winning the third set after taking a 22-16 lead.
Kentucky won the next four points, and then came the point that Husky fans will not soon forget.
Even after the tough third-set loss, Cook and Powell each said the Huskies kept their faith, and were confident they could come back as they had in their previous two matches.
But there was no more magic.
While Washington was advancing with three straight five-set victories, Kentucky had advanced with three straight sweeps.
It seemed that no deficit was too much for the Huskies to overcome after coming back from 2-0 down to beat Pittsburgh to advance to the Final Four, and rallying from 2-1 down and a 11-5 deficit in the fifth set to beat Louisville in the Sweet 16.
Kentucky was clearly a tougher opponent, with three first-team All-Americans, including setter Madison Lilley, the national player of the year.
The Wildcats will play the winner of the match between top-seeded Wisconsin and No. 4 Texas for the national title Saturday night.
Meanwhile, the Huskies are already looking forward to next season and trying to get back to the Final Four. The only player they are expected to lose is senior Maria Bogomolova.
“I am excited I get to coach this group in just a couple of months,” Cook said. “I love their identities, I love their intangibles.
“The mindset is going to be this stage, right here. How do we get back here? What were we missing?”