This year's tournament has to be right up there for the volume of upsets, near-upsets, and all-around strangeness. UCLA appeared to be floundering towards the end of the regular season, losing three of its last five matches. Florida State, playing in the relatively low-profile Atlantic Coast Conference, certainly didn't seem like Final Four caliber during the season. Yet, the Bruins and Seminoles will be playing each other this upcoming Thursday night in one national semi-final.
The other national semi will feature two teams that each looked dominant for most of the season, but also had some unexpected losses, USC and Illinois. The mighty Big 10 conference, which had six of its member teams advance to the Sweet 16 round, ended Friday night's regional semi-finals with the minimum number of surviving teams it could have, one (because Illinois played Ohio State and someone had to win!).
In the remainder of this entry, I summarize developments in the four regions and discuss what to look out for in the Final Four.
LEXINGTON, KY REGION
A night after sweeping four-time defending national champion Penn State out of the tournament, UCLA ousted the national No. 1 seed Texas, 19-25, 25-22, 25-22, 25-21 (box score). Texas's decline after Game 1 is evident in many ways. As shown in the following graph, the Longhorns' hitting percentage fell from a torrid .517 in Game 1 to roughly .200 in each of the remaining games.
As perhaps a microcosm of the match, Texas's Haley Eckerman amassed 4 kills in Game 1, and 5 in Game 2, but only 1 more the rest of the contest (fairly late in Game 4 with UT down 15-12). Eckerman sat for the middle stages of the match, leading the ESPN-U announcers and other observers to wonder what might have been going on.
Texas outblocked UCLA 10-7 for the match, but the way the Longhorns' blocks were distributed among the four games shows why UT didn't gain a bigger advantage from its blocking.
The Longhorns recorded 5 blocks in Game 1 (including 3 straight to advance their lead from 17-15 to 20-15). However, UT had no blocks in the second set, 2 in the third, and none for most of the fourth. Only after the Longhorns had fallen behind 20-13, did they somehow put together 3 more blocks, but it was too little, too late. (These game-specific statistics come from looking at the play-by-play sheet on the archived CBS Sports gametracker.)
For UCLA, Rachael Kidder provided the offensive lift against Texas, hitting .417 from 26 kills and 6 errors on 48 swings. As seen in the graph above, the Bruins experienced what seems to be their customary Game-3 dip in hitting percentage, but still won the game.
Twelfth-seeded Florida State stunned No. 5 Purdue and No. 4 Iowa State, the latter in five sets, to advance to the Seminoles' first volleyball Final Four. Blocking appeared to play a large role in FSU's win over Iowa State. Florida State outblocked Iowa State 16-8, as well as outhitting the Cyclones .245-.204 (box score).
It was blocking that arguably turned around Game 5, as the Seminoles stuffed the Cyclones at four key points (to tie the game 8-8, and boost their leads to 10-8, 12-10, and 14-11). If, instead of being blocked, Iowa State could have made good on most of these spike attempts, the match could well have had a different outcome.
FSU junior middle-blocker Sareea Freeman personally played a large role in thwarting the Cyclones' attack, contributing 2 solo blocks and 8 block assists for the match, while hitting .500 (12-2-20). Jekaterina Stepanova also hit big for the Seminoles in a workhorse role (.378, 20-3-45).
In the regional final, Illinois withstood a Florida team that was hot and playing on its home court, 25-22, 23-25, 25-14, 25-20 (box score). Colleen Ward, who once played for Florida before transferring, led the Fighting Illini with a .500 hitting percentage against the Gators (23-2-42). The error-free hitting of middle blockers Anna Dorn, .600 (6-0-10), and Erin Johnson, .562 (9-0-16), also paced the Illini.
Illinois won the first game, in which both teams hit very poorly (UI .068, UF .024). The Illini then perked up to hit .455, .394, and .514 in the final three games, for a .338 night overall as a team. The Gators hit .405 in Game 2, below Illinois's average, but enough to win the set.
The Gators' overall hitting percentage against Illinois was .225, with team leader Kelly Murphy registering only a .205. In sweeping Michigan the night before, Florida hit a whopping .439. Betsy Smith (.700), Chloe Mann (.533), Murphy (.517), and Kristy Jaeckel (.435), led the Gators (all four of these hitters took at least 10 swings).
Just as Illinois had to contend with playing an opponent on its home floor, so did USC. In this regional, the Trojans faced host Hawai'i in the semi-final, winning in five, 19-25, 29-27, 19-25, 25-23, 15-12 (box score). The teams were very balanced in their overall hitting (UH .220, USC .211) and blocks recorded (UH 15, USC 14).
The Trojans managed to turn up their offensive intensive in the fifth set, when they needed to, hitting .400 (12-2-25) and siding out (winning points on the Rainbow Wahine's serve) 69% of the time. Seven of those kills were by Alex Jupiter. The fact that 'SC scored 12 of its 15 Game-5 points on kills (with the others on an ace and two blocks) is noteworthy in that Hawai'i wasn't exactly giving things away with errors.
Some may have expected a Trojan cakewalk over Pepperdine the next night (I did), but instead, USC was again extended to five games, 25-16, 26-28, 19-25, 25-19, 15-10 (box score). The Trojans outhit the Waves, although neither team hit that well in an absolute sense (.223-.175). USC's blocking advantage was much more one-sided, 14-6.5.
The four teams that will be competing for the NCAA title all have shown great resiliency, overcoming deficits, hometown crowds for their opponents, and the pressures of fifth games. Interestingly, Florida State, the team I would give the least chance to win it all, may have the best balance between hitting and blocking. Illinois probably has the most consistently strong hitting, whereas USC can dominate with the block (which is not to say the Trojans don't have some fine hitters, when they're on). UCLA's problem this season has been closing out matches (squandering 2-set-to-1 leads at Pepperdine and Arizona, and a 2-0 lead at Oregon, to lose all three of these matches). Lately, however, the Bruins have shown no trouble closing the deal.