It’s not about how you start, but about how you finish. This idea got No. 3 Texas past No. 14 UCLA, 3-1, on Friday night.
The Longhorns struggled early, dropping the first set and winning a close second. But a challenge from head coach Jerritt Elliott between sets sparked a turnaround for Texas.
“It wasn’t our best performance early on,” Elliott said. “We challenged them to be better competitors and we came out completely different in game three. I’m really proud of this group for playing the way they did.”
Texas didn’t play well in set one. Its transition defense was slow and UCLA found success with the tip game. Shaky passing stymied Texas’ usually explosive offense, keeping the team hitting just .118.
Texas didn’t record any blocks in set one and tallied just 12 digs. UCLA’s junior outside hitter Jordan Anderson — a Flower Mound, Texas native —notched eight kills to lead the Bruins to a 25-23 set win.
Set two’s start wasn’t much better, but senior middle blocker Molly McCage led a late Texas rally to clinch the set, 25-22. Texas’ back row defense continued to struggle, but the blockers helped hold off the UCLA hitters.
“I liked the way we were able to sneak out game two, that gave us some confidence,” Elliott said. “It wasn’t our best performance early on, but you don’t need to play perfect volleyball in this tournament, you just need to find a way to win.”
Texas improved in set three, cruising to a 25-10 victory and holding UCLA to its lowest point totals all season. The back row defense was moving and passing better and the blockers totaled five blocks in the set. The 4,128-person crowd rallied behind Texas’ performance. Gregory Gym was electric and helped Texas hit a match-best .375.
“Knowing that our crowd is behind us makes us more confident and makes us want to put on a show for them,” junior middle blocker Chiaka Ogbogu said. “You can just feel the gym, it’s electrifying.”
Neither the crowd nor Texas’ dominance quieted down in set four. The Longhorns went on a 5-0 run early behind kills from senior outside hitter Amy Neal, who finished with a team-high 18 kills. UCLA fought back with a 6-0 run to decrease Texas’ lead to three points, but hustle plays got Texas the 25-20 win.
Texas will face No. 11 Florida at 8 p.m. Saturday in the regional final at Gregory Gym. The Gators beat the Longhorns 3-1 earlier this season, and Texas is looking to return the favor.
“We always find reasons to make it personal,” junior outside hitter Paulina Prieto Cerame said. “It helps us get a little fired up, and Florida has always been a rival.”