Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Stanford Tops Nebraska in First Five-Game Championship Final in Nine Years

This year's NCAA women's championship match, completed in mid-December, featured a five-game thriller in which Stanford defeated Nebraska, 28-26, 22-25, 25-16, 15-25, 15-12 (box score). It was the first time an NCAA women's final went five since the classic 2009 tussle in which Penn State came back from two games down vs. Texas to win its third straight national title.

Stanford was the No. 1 seed in the tourney and No. 2 in my own Conference-Adjusted Combined Offensive-Defensive (CACOD) metric. Interesting, Nebraska, though only the No. 7 seed in the eyes of the NCAA Selection Committee, finished first in the CACOD. The final thus presented an attractive match-up, indeed!

Not everything went according to plan. Stanford junior Kathryn Plummer, the 2017 and 2018 AVCA and ESPN-W national player of the year, was kept in check in the final, hitting only .153 (19 kills, 10 errors, 59 total attempts). Frosh middle-blocker Holly Campbell paced the Cardinal attack, hitting .483 (15-1-29).

It was one of those "swing until your arm falls off" nights for Nebraska senior outside-hitter Mikaela Foecke, as she had 71 attack attempts (39.2% of the Huskers' total of 181 attempts). This volume of attempts was reminiscent of Destinee Hooker (Texas) and Megan Hodge (Penn State) in 2009. Foecke hit a solid .296 (26 kills, 6 errors) on these attempts. No Husker was close to Foecke's number of swings, but three had between 26-33 attempts. Among them, the most effective was sophomore middle-blocker Lauren Stivrins (19-3-26, .615).

The rest of this posting focuses on Game 5 of the final (video replay). The Lincoln Journal-Star published an excellent game-by-game review of the match, in which it identified Campbell's clutch kills as the key to Game 5. My take was a little different, namely that Nebraska errors prevented it from opening up some early daylight, which would have been difficult for Stanford to overcome.

With Nebraska up 3-1 in the fifth, Stanford scored four straight points, the last three on Husker hitting errors (Jazz Sweet wide, Sweet blocked, and Foecke long). Nebraska thus trailed 5-3, when it very well could have led by a similar margin. Then, after the Huskers fought back to a 6-6 tie, they missed two straight serves (Foecke at 6-6, Hayley Densberger at 7-7). Nebraska looked a little deflated at that point, falling behind 14-10.

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Taking a longer-term perspective, three programs are now dominating the sport: Stanford, which won its nation-leading eighth NCAA title; Penn State, which has seven NCAA titles (the most recent in 2014); and Nebraska, with five (including 2015 and 2017). The last six national championships have been captured by one of these three schools.

Next down the list are UCLA (four titles), and USC, Hawaii, and Long Beach State (each with three). One of these teams could rebound back into national contention (USC arguably being the most likely), but it is unlikely any of them will displace the Big Three anytime soon.

This year's two other Final Four squads, BYU and Illinois, are showing some promise. Finally, schools such as Texas (the 2012 winner), Minnesota, Florida, Wisconsin, and Washington often contend each December, but none has gotten it done lately. 

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