OMAHA — It wasn’t an easy start to the season for freshman outside hitter Yaasmeen Bedart-Ghani. The Los Angeles native began her career seeing little of the court behind Texas’ multitude of hitters, constrained to the bench at Gregory Gym. In her first five matches in the burnt orange and white, she accumulated just 12 kills, and in the Longhorns' conference opener against TCU, she sported zero kills and one error.
“It took a week or two to kind of get it going,” head coach Jerritt Elliott said. “In our gym, you gotta prove that you can get to that point. Early on in the season she was just swinging as hard as she could and figuring it out.”
But it was Bedart-Ghani who was the key to the Longhorns 3-1 victory over Minnesota on Thursday, sending Texas to the national title game.
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Bedart-Ghani registered 15 kills with a .583 kill percentage on the evening, her best performance of the season. While Texas fans may have been surprised by Bedart-Ghani’s emergence, she knew what she could do upon entering the Longhorn program in August.
“I’ve just been building each game, each practice,” Bedart-Ghani said. “I have such a great support group here. They really push you to be the best that you could be, just going out there and working hard every day with them has made such a difference in my game.”
Junior outside hitter Paulina Prieto Cerame shined in the opening set. In a frame mired in a never-ending tug of war, Cerame broke the stalemate. With the score tied at 22, Cerame rattled off three thunderous kills in a five-point span, bringing the Longhorns to set point. Senior libero Kat Brooks finished the Gophers off with an ace, giving Texas a 26-24 victory.
Cerame’s clutch play on Thursday wasn’t an isolated incident. She's shined in clutch situations throughout the tournament, registering two kills in the pivotal fifth set to knock off Florida in the Elite 8.
“Having Yaazie and other newbies on the court has made me have to step up as a veteran,” Cerame said. “That’s given me confidence.”
While the first set was a defensive battle, the second was an offensive showcase. Both teams hit over .300, with Texas registering a .375 kill percentage. The teams tied 17 times, with the margin of victory just two points. The Longhorns ultimately prevailed 27-25.
The Longhorns came to their bench for the third set energetic and loose, a product of making appearances in the Final Four the past three seasons. But the Gophers wouldn't go down without a fight.
Up 20-18, Texas looked primed to secure with a straight-set victory. But down 18-16, senior outside hitter Daly Santana came through for the Gophers, spurring a 5-0 Minnesota run to put the Gophers up 23-20. It was a lead they would never relinquish, claiming the third frame 25-23 to extend the match.
“It was a couple of heavyweights going at it,” Minnesota coach Hugh McCutcheon said. “You knew it was gonna be close.”
Texas found a way to eek out a three point lead in the fourth set and found itself at match point, up 24-21. And just as they had all year, the Longhorns looked to their anchor in senior outside hitter Amy Neal. She positioned her body to the opposite corner of the court, and brought the match to a close with a thunderous kill, her 25th of the night.
Texas now finds itself in the same position it’s been in twice before under Elliott, with one match remaining to claim the national championship. The Longhorns have been a model of consistency during the Elliott era, making seven Final Fours in the past eight years.
However, the burnt orange have just one championship to show for it. They have a chance to change that Saturday night as they take on the winner of Nebraska and Kansas in the national final.
The Longhorns' locker room was jubilant after the victory, but not satisfied. As they broke the team huddle, a singular call emerged from senior middle blocker Molly McCage and the rest of the Texas team.
“One more day,” they shouted. “One more day.”