The goal for Texas all season had been to make up for their loss in the national semifinals to unseeded Wisconsin a year ago.
But Thursday night the Longhorns’ run towards another national championship came to a screeching halt in the form of BYU and its formidable block.
The Cougars sent the Longhorns scrambling with 17 blocks and held Texas to a tournament-low.162 hitting percentage and came away with a 3-1 upset to kick the Longhorns out of the tournament and advance to the national title game for the first time in their history.
“Their block caused a lot of problems for us,” head coach Jerritt Elliott said. “They got a lot of good touches and a lot of blocks and that took us out of offense a bit.”
Though tough early on, it appeared as though Texas had the early upper hand, breaking on a 3-0 run to take a 15-12 lead into the media timeout. But with a 15-13 lead, the Longhorns had shot after shot blocked by the BYU front line, only for BYU to finally put the point away to get the set back to 15-14. The Cougars would then go on to tie set at 15 and eventually won it 25-23.
The second set, however, much like the second set against North Carolina, went way out of Texas’ favor. With the score tied at nine, BYU went on a 10-2 run, which included four blocks by the Cougars to take a 19-11 lead en route to a 25-16 set win.
But coming out of intermission, a new Texas team emerged. Needing a set win to keep the match alive, the Longhorns fired a .357 hitting percentage and kept the Cougars from getting any blocks in the set. After BYU hung around to tie the set at 17-all, Texas fired off an 8-0 run to force the match to a fourth set.
In that fourth set, the Longhorns held off Cougar run after Cougar run to stay alive. Fighting off one match point at 24-23, Texas appeared to be set up for a set point after an attack by BYU senior opposite hitter Jennifer Hamson went long. However, the down official, who was furthest away from the play, called that there was a touch, giving BYU a match point that they would convert to win the match.
“I think I can't comment on refereeing, but I can comment where I think the sport needs to go and I think we need to look at some instant replays and some abilities to make some calls, because it's difficult when you get a two‑point switch and your kids tried as hard as they did,” Elliott, who was given a yellow card for arguing the call, said.
When their attacks weren’t being block, the Longhorns had to deal with the Cougars managing to seemingly dig up every ball to set up their attack. The BYU backline came up with 52 digs, which then allowed BYU to drill 57 kills.
“We just wanted to make sure that we had each other's backs,” BYU senior outside hitter Tambre Nobles said. “We wanted our hitters to go up and have the confidence to take big swings knowing our defense would have our back if we got blocked.”
One bright spot for Texas in the loss was sophomore middle blocker Chiaka Ogbogu. Ogbogu finished the night with a team-high and a career-high 14 kills and posted a hitting percentage of .500 as the Longhorns tried to feed the ball to the middle of the court to throw off the BYU block.
“I think it's a change in playing with the middles a lot more, getting them involved in the game is what made a difference for sure,” senior outside hitter Khat Bell said. “They were able to spread the offense a lot more and get the BYU's middles to bite a little bit.”
The loss ends Texas’ season in the national semifinal round for the second straight year. Last year Texas was upset by Wisconsin after many thought the Longhorns overlooked the Badgers. This year, however, Elliott thought they did a good job in preparing for their unseeded opponent.
“I told our staff, ‘Look, if we don't win this match it wasn't because we didn't prepare the right way, it wasn't because of the talk we had,’” Elliott said.
Elliott said he will give the players a break and then ask them questions about every part of the program before they “pick up the pieces and build a new puzzle and try to figure it out again.” But for seniors Haley Eckerman and Bell, this was their last match in a Texas uniform. Still, Eckerman, who has seemed to become the face of the program in her time on the Forty Acres, said they went out strong.
“It’s hard as a loss but we know that we fought and that that game could have gone either way,” Eckerman said. “And if we would have gone into a fifth set, we knew that we could take over a game."