The Cinderella story continues.
BYU, just the third unseeded team to make it to the Final Four, continued its surprising run through the NCAA tournament Thursday night, shocking No. 2 Texas in four sets (25-23, 25-16, 17-25, 26-24).
On paper, the Longhorns were highly favored coming into the match, but someone forgot to tell the Cougars, which looked like the more impressive team the entire match except for the end of the third set.
“Personally, I don't think it's an upset,” BYU outside hitter Alexa Gray said. “The numbers besides the name is the only thing that says it's an upset. We know we're a good team.”
Jennifer Hamson led the Cougars with 22 kills and added 10 digs. Gray had 19 kills and hit a team-high .421. Tambre Nobles chipped in 11 kills.
For Texas, only Chiaka Ogbogu finished in double-digit kills with 14. She also hit .500 and added eight total blocks.
Haley Eckerman was completely shut down by the BYU block and finished with just nine kills and a .033 attack percentage in her final game. Khat Bell also had nine kills.
BYU came into the night as the best blocking team in the nation, but it was the Cougars' offense that gave BYU a surprising 2-0 lead at the break.
Led by the combination of the 6-foot-7 Hamson and Gray, the Cougars completely stymied Texas and quieted the large Longhorn contingent at The Peake.
In the first set, Texas held a 15-12 lead at the first TV timeout. The two teams traded 3-0 runs and timeouts before Gray went off and took control of the set for the Cougars. Over the course of seven BYU points, Gray had four kills and a solo block to give the Cougars a 22-21 lead.
The teams were tied twice more before Hamson closed the set with her eighth kill and a block assist with Amy Boswell to give BYU a 25-23.
The second set was all BYU. Tied at nine, the Cougars went on an 8-1 run, forcing two Texas timeouts in the process. This time, it was the Cougars' blocking that led the charge, as Amy Bowswell, Nobles and Whitney Young each had three block assists in the set.
Texas looked completely out of sorts and hit .033 for the set as the Cougars cruised, 25-16.
The Cougars had Texas completely out of system in the first two sets, something the team knew was essential to success and something they had worked on in practice.
“It's a really big emphasis we have,” Hamson said. “We've just been getting better and better at it focusing on making the ball move and passers move not necessarily going for aces, and I think we really executed that today.”
After the break, the Longhorns came out with renewed energy and looked like the team that spent the entire season in the ranked in the top five. The set was back and forth for over half the set before Texas took control, thanks to BYU getting stuck in a bad rotation.
“In Game 3 we came out, played at a very high level, thought our blocking caught fire,” Texas coach Jerritt Elliott said. “We put ourselves in a position with serve/receive, to get our middles a lot more involved, which we wanted to do.”
Gray left with the score tied at 11 and never returned. Hamson rotated to the back row with the scored tied at 17. With neither of those players on the front, the Cougar offense fizzled, allowing Texas to rattle off eight straight points to take the set, 25-17.
“They were taking smarter swings, for sure,” BYU coach Shawn Olmstead said. “I think they were trying to be aggressive thinking maybe they could move the ball around a little more.
“I thought our serving let off a little in the third and that allowed them to be closer to the net and set that middle and get the middle going and she got a bunch of those kills that's what I thought.”
Bell and Ogbogu had three combination blocks during the run, while the BYU block was completely stymied. The Cougars didn't record a block in the set.
It was the third time in NCAA tournament the Cougars had won the first two sets and then lost the third, but Hamson said the expectation was never to sweep Texas.
“We just really focused on staying even, whether we win or lose this set, because it's a game of runs,” Hamson said. “We knew it was going to be a good battle. We just had to stay composed and know and believe in ourselves that we could do it.”
The fourth set was just like those before it, with back and forth action extending deep into the set. BYU regained the blocking advantage, as Boswell recorded three straight blocks to give the Cougars a 19-16 lead. But the Longhorns rallied, and an ace from Ogbogu gave Texas a 22-20 lead.
But Gray returned for BYU and soon the score was knotted at 23. Tied at 24, Hamson sent a kill attempt long and it looked like the Horns were going to force a fifth set. But the up official called a touch, sending the Texas bench into an uproar. Elliott was assessed a yellow card, and Hamson ended the match on the next rally.
“No, promise you that,” Eckerman said when asked if there was a touch.
“I personally felt a touch, but you never know with (that), Hamson said. “It's honestly the ref's call and I think they do the best they can.”
Even though the win was a big upset on paper, the Cougars didn't see it as such.
“I think we have confidence that we can come in play our hardest and that our best can beat anybody's best here in the tournament,” Gray said.
The only people that aren't surprised the Cougars are in their first NCAA championship are the Cougars themselves. Winning three more sets for the program's first national title won't be easy, but getting to this point shouldn't have been easy either.