Yes, the magic finally ran out for Washington’s volleyball team, which faced a Kentucky team too powerful to allow the sort of frenetic comeback that had fueled its run through the NCAA tournament.
But in that heartbreaking (and a bit controversial) four-set defeat in the Final Four on Thursday in Omaha, Nebraska, one vital fact was reinforced for the Huskies: Just how close they are to earning the title they pursued with guts and grace.
Mind you, being close can be agonizing, because the losses hit that much harder. And this Kentucky victory — 25-18, 23-25, 25-23, 25-17 — hit Washington extremely hard. That’s what happens when you’re just two wins away from the program’s first title since 2005.
“I know our athletes are bummed right now, but after that, there will be a lot of motivation in a short offseason to come back better than we were,’’ Washington coach Keegan Cook said.
Another thing about being ever so close to the ultimate glory: It just reinforces how small are the margins separating teams that make it to the championship, and the ones that fall just short. And Cook was already plotting ways to close that gap, knowing full well that those last steps are the toughest in a sport that gets more competitive by the season.
“Anyone will tell you the margins are incredibly thin,’’ Cook said. “They get thinner every year. The physicality that’s showing up all over the country is unbelievable, and it’s matched with some really high skill. I don’t think people recognize how skilled these athletes are in addition to their athleticism.”
To a woman, the Huskies felt they had one more comeback in them, after becoming the first team in tournament history to make the Final Four with three five-set matches. And just saying “five-set match” doesn’t do justice to the scope and magnitude of their rallies.
But Kentucky, led by the college Player of the Year in setter Madison Lilley and loaded with talented, athletic players, simply refused to allow it. And it didn’t help when the referee missed a clear net violation by the Wildcats at a critical juncture of the vital third set. The Huskies had already used all three of their challenges, so the point stood for Kentucky, which turned around a 22-16 deficit with a 9-1 finish.
The Huskies certainly didn’t panic, based on their recent history of comebacks. But it simply wasn’t to be as Kentucky rolled in the fourth set.
“One thing this tournament has shown us is anything is possible,’’ said Ella May Powell, Washington’s All-American setter. “And to keep fighting. I don’t think we ever necessarily doubted ourselves. We just weren’t playing the volleyball we needed to play. It’s easier to get that groove going whenever you already have a little bit of a groove. But with such a good offense on the other side, it’s really hard.”
The Huskies will lose just one player off this year’s team — Maria Bogomolova, who earned a permanent spot in Husky volleyball annals with her seven-point serving run in the fifth set that stunned Louisville in the Sweet 16.
Everyone else is expected back, with a shorter-than-normal offseason as an offshoot of the COVID-delayed 2020-21 season. Cook is already plotting how to close the gap that he believes is minuscule, yet daunting.
“I’m excited I get to coach this team in just a couple of months,’’ he said. “I’m already thinking about the little spaces we can round them off, but I love their identities, and I love their intangibles.”
When the season was shut down, Cook challenged the team to ponder the Washington volleyball legacy. This was a group he had recruited with a commitment to restore Final Fours to the Husky program, a burden the coach felt deeply.
“It’s a commitment that gets thrown around pretty lightly in our sport, and to really pursue it takes all of you,’’ he said. “These kids, they made that commitment; we made that commitment to them. And we got back here. It just says everything about them.
“These are players that have two or three years left in their careers, and they’re already thinking about what they’re going to contribute to the program, what are they going to be known for? I think that’s how you know you have the right people in the program.”
Cook spoke several times after the match of the fine tuning that lies ahead.
“We’ve come a long way with our group,’’ he said. “We’ve gotten good at a lot of big things that are important. There are some little spaces we’ve got to get a lot better in.”
That’s the challenge of the future. For now, the Huskies will rest up and recharge after their draining but exhilarating run.
“This year has been amazing,’’ said Powell, who suffered a major knee injury in August that would have cost her the season if it hadn’t been delayed until January.
“It hasn’t looked exactly as I would have drawn it out, but it’s taught me a lot other than volleyball. A lot of perspective about life, that things can get taken from you in an instant. It’s just a nice reminder that this game that we play, that we love, is a gift and it can be taken away. It’s a matter of playing hard for your teammates, playing hard for yourself, knowing the work you’ve put in.”
Those “little spaces” the Huskies will try to fill are indeed crucial. But the big picture can be monumental as well.