SEATTLE – In a 2012 season full of heart stopping comebacks and indelible moments, the Husky volleyball team kept its season alive with yet another thriller, coming back to defeat Hawaii, 3-2, at Alaska Airlines Arena and advance to the NCAA round of 16. The Rainbow Wahine (27-3) pushed the Huskies (25-6) to the brink, holding match point in the fourth set, but Washington found a way to survive, taking the match 20-25, 25-20, 19-25, 27-25, 15-11 in front of 3,709 fans.
The Huskies now move on to the Omaha Regional, where they will face the fourth-seeded Nebraska Cornhuskers on the partisan CenturyLink Center court on Friday, Dec. 7. Fifth-seeded Oregon and 12th-seeded BYU make up the other half of the Regional, which will send one team on to the Final Four in Louisville in two weeks time. Washington and Nebraska last met here in Seattle in 2010, also in the round of 16, with UW getting the win that night, setting the stage for an exciting rematch.
The rematch nearly did not materialize, as Hawaii, ranked eighth in the most recent coaches poll but unseeded in the tournament to the surprise of many, held match point in the fourth set, at 25-24. And Hawaii junior Emily Hartong, who hammered away all night for a match-high 30 kills, had a swing on that point, but her shot met the outstretched arms of NCAA blocks leader senior Amanda Gil, who sent it back down to keep the Huskies alive. Washington took the next two points to win the fourth set, then made a decisive run halfway through the fifth set to seal the comeback.
It is the fourth time this season that the determined Dawgs have been down a match point, and yet come back to win the match. Previously they were down match points at home to UCLA, and on the road at Cal, coming back to win both, and memorably the Huskies saved 14 match points at home to Oregon to battle back and win.
Head Coach Jim McLaughlin, who has now led UW to the Sweet-16 seven times in the last 10 years, summed it up as “a dog fight between two top-10 teams. We have been in some fights, certainly we have had some highs and some lows, but it has really strengthened us for conditions like this. I was proud of how we responded … we were not playing well in game three, and these guys didn’t quit. They kept fighting, and counted on each other in the toughest situations.
“It’s a huge win for our program,” McLaughlin continued. “Hawaii is big time, and they’ve been big time for many years. It’s too bad they didn’t get to host, but it’s a good win to get us the right momentum in this tournament.”
The Huskies pulled it out with one of their most well-rounded nights of the year. Sophomore Krista Vansant looked close to her old self tonight, coming back from a sprained ankle, as she had 16 kills and hit .297 while adding 10 digs. Freshman Cassie Strickland came up huge with a double-double (13 kills, 14 digs) and senior Kylin Muñoz notched 15 kills and nine big blocks, with sophomore Kaleigh Nelson adding 11 kills.
Gil had eight blocks, including the critical one down match point, and her last one also ended the night in the fifth set. Katy Beals had 29 assists and Jenni Nogueras had 23 more, while Jenna Orlandini led with 16 digs and served several key Husky runs tonight. Hartong’s 30 kills for Hawaii were backed up by 20 kills for Jane Croson.
Washington, the No. 13 seed in the tourney, ended up outhitting the Rainbow Wahine, .268 to .260. Hawaii had the digs edge, 74-56, but Washington had 17.0 blocks to just 5.0 for the Big West Champions. Hawaii had a 19-match win streak snapped tonight, as they went undefeated through conference play.