PITTSBURGH -- The crowd came for a match, but what it saw was a clinic. Stanford won its ninth NCAA women's volleyball title -- and third in the past four years -- with a 3-0 sweep of Wisconsin on Saturday.
Name a thing you can do on a volleyball court, and the Cardinal did it like champions. They outhit the Badgers in kills (50-31) and hitting percentage (.358 to .152). They out-blocked them 7-3. They out-dug them 57-39. They served well, passed well and defended well.
A senior class that includes four-year standouts Kathryn Plummer, Jenna Gray, Morgan Hentz and Audriana Fitzmorris matches what Stanford did in 1994-97: winning three championships in four years. This group of seniors beat Texas 3-1 in the 2016 final, lost in five sets to Florida in the 2017 national semifinal, beat Nebraska in five sets in the 2018 final and then got the sweep this year in the final. They finish 23-1 in NCAA tournament matches, with three Pac-12 titles.
Plummer, who had been national player of the year the past two seasons, missed 10 matches in October and November, thus making her ineligible for Pac-12 and American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) postseason honors because those require playing a certain percentage of matches/sets.
But she dominated the NCAA tournament, and was named the most outstanding player Saturday after 22 kills, 10 digs and 3 blocks. She hit .459 for the match against the Badgers.
Molly Haggerty led Wisconsin with 10 kills, but the Badgers never could get much going against the Cardinal, losing sets of 25-16, 25-17, 25-20.
Best of the semifinals
PITTSBURGH -- Stanford is already the titan of NCAA women's volleyball titles and is seeking its ninth national championship, the third in four years for a remarkable class of seniors. Wisconsin has been building toward a title for a long time, and now is on the brink of it.
No. 3 seed Stanford swept No. 7 Minnesota, and No. 4 Wisconsin beat No. 1 Baylor in Thursday's semifinals, which means Saturday's final (8 p.m. ET, ESPN2/ESPN App) will be a battle involving teams that have outstanding individual talent but also seem to have the best chemistry. The Cardinal and the Badgers were regular-season champions in the two most powerful conferences in the sport, the Pac-12 and Big Ten.
So in a volleyball season that at one point seemed somewhat wide open, the two teams many thought were going to be the best are, indeed, the last two standing.
There will be the star power of Cardinal senior outside hitter Kathryn Plummer, who had 26 kills Thursday, and Wisconsin junior middle blocker Dana Rettke, who had 19. And the two best setters in the country, Stanford senior Jenna Gray and Wisconsin junior Sydney Hilley, each of whom directed their team expertly in Thursday's semifinals. And some unbelievable defense by liberos, led by Cardinal senior Morgan Hentz (23 digs) and Badgers senior Tiffany Clark (18).
"They're playing really well, and hat's off to them," Minnesota coach Hugh McCutcheon said of Stanford. "If they're going to play like that Saturday, they're going to be tough to beat."
The same could be said for Wisconsin, which dominated the first semifinal after dropping the first set to Baylor.
The Badgers won their first four matches in the NCAA tournament in sweeps. Thursday's 27-25 opening-set loss was the first Wisconsin had dropped in the three weeks since falling to Penn State in the penultimate regular-season match.
Then the Badgers stepped on the gas, winning the second set 25-21, the third 25-17 and the fourth 25-19.
"That was a whale of a volleyball match," Wisconsin coach Kelly Sheffield said of a result that was an upset according to seeding but didn't really feel that way, all things considered.
Wisconsin reached its third final four and has been a competitive program for a long time. Previously, the Badgers lost in the NCAA final in 2000 and 2013. This was all new to Baylor, which has made a meteoric rise in the past few years under Ryan McGuyre, who was named American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) Division I coach of the year earlier Thursday.
"As the match went on, it was harder for us to get kills," McGuyre said. "And kills for them were coming a little bit easier."
The Badgers lost 3-1 to Baylor when these teams met in Madison, Wisconsin, on Sept. 6. Both teams evolved a lot since then, but Wisconsin also had a key player at the final four that it didn't have in that match: redshirt senior hitter Madison Duello, who was out because of injury then. She had five kills and five blocks Thursday.
"She's kind of an important part of what we're doing," Sheffield said. "And it's really interesting of going back watching a match that you played, what, three months ago.
"At the beginning of the year, you're trying a lot of different things. Some things stick, and a lot of things you carve off. So you see a lot of things that you're like, 'What were we thinking? What were we doing?'"
The Badgers definitely felt a little worried when they were 4-4 going into conference play. Who picks a .500 team to win the rugged Big Ten? Still, as Sheffield said, the Badgers were waiting to get all their pieces together. And once they did, save for a hiccup or two in conference play, they have been a fantastic team.
"We did a good job staying loose and having fun," Hilley said.
Thursday, the Bears gave Wisconsin everything they had in their arsenal in the first set. But even though Wisconsin lost it, the way the Badgers were playing, it was evident they were close to taking over -- and they did.
"To have a team continue to believe and fight and stay aggressive ..." Sheffield said. "We're just excited to keep playing."
For Baylor, it was the end of a magical season and just the Bears' second loss; the other was to Big 12 foe Texas in October. Junior outside hitter Yossiana Pressley had 25 kills for Baylor but also 12 errors as she had to contend with Wisconsin's tough defense, including 62 digs by the Badgers. Pressley hit .191 for the match.
"She elevates in a different atmosphere than most other kids," Sheffield said of Pressley. "We had a game plan of how to defend, but beyond that it was just playing within yourself, and I think our players did a really good job with that."
The Gophers actually had a plan for Plummer, too, but she didn't allow it to work. She was error-free in a strong first set the Cardinal won 25-19 and continued to be a force as Stanford won the next two sets, both 25-22.
Plummer now has 29, 24 and 26 kills in her past three matches. She missed 10 matches earlier in the season because of injury; as a result, she didn't play enough sets to qualify for AVCA All-American honors after being on the first team her three previous seasons. But there's no question that she's playing as well as she ever has.
"She is 100 percent taking her game to the next level," said Gray, who has set for Plummer since their freshman season, when they won their first NCAA title. "Even after four years, she still makes my jaw drop. There were a couple moments tonight where she just had me like, 'Wow.'"
Gray wasn't alone in that. Anyone watching had to be wowed by Plummer, too. And the way that Rettke took over the Badgers' match was pretty awe-inducing as well.
It should make for a top-notch final Saturday. This will be the third championship match for Stanford's core four seniors: Plummer, Gray, Hentz and Audriana Fitzmorris.
"It's absolutely a dream; we're just so happy to be one of two teams that still gets to practice tomorrow," said Gray, who had eight digs, five blocks, 41 assists and five kills -- one of which came on a set point. "Being part of this team of incredible people feels amazing."
Best of the quarterfinals
Baylor reaches first final four
When Ryan McGuyre took over Baylor's volleyball program in 2015, there was no reason to think a final four was in the distant future, let alone the near one. Yet that's where the Bears are headed after their 3-1 regional final victory over Washington.
Baylor had been in the NCAA tournament just four times before McGuyre arrived. The Bears had defeated the beast of the Big 12, Texas, just twice in history, and not since 2001. The idea of winning a league championship would have seemed like a really big deal. But a national championship? That seemed pie in the sky, to say the least.
Pressley leads Baylor to the final four
Yossiana Pressley keeps Baylor's season alive by leading the Bears to the school's first final four.
Yet here the Bears are, two matches away from that. Yossiana Pressley, the Bears' dynamic junior outside hitter, had 24 kills to just three errors against the Huskies, and she hit .512 for the match. Fittingly, the match ended on her kill, and the Bears celebrated in front of their fans at the Ferrell Center in Waco, Texas.
McGuyre coached for several years at the NAIA level in California, then was an assistant at Maryland and Florida State for a couple of years, before getting the opportunity at Baylor. While out recruiting, he said, he and his staff frequently heard that a player might be "too good to go to Baylor."
"We really had to persevere," McGuyre said. "You attract people who are like-minded. We didn't get all the highly touted ones. But we got players able to work hard and believe they have what it takes."
McGuyre led the Bears to three more NCAA tournament appearances, including a second-round loss to Oregon last year. All of that was a prelude to an amazing 2019 season thus far.
Nonconference wins over ranked teams Creighton, Wisconsin, Marquette, Missouri and Hawaii showed the Bears were a real threat.
Then in Big 12 play, Baylor suffered its only loss this season when it was swept by Texas in Austin on Oct. 23.
But in the rematch at Baylor on Nov. 20, the Bears won 3-2, and that victory helped them secure the overall No. 1 seed.
Baylor swept Sacred Heart and Southern California in the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament, then beat Purdue 3-1 in the regional semifinals.
Against Washington, the Bears won the first set 25-20, then dropped the second 25-21. Baylor won the third set 25-19 and closed out the match 25-18.
Washington ended its season at 27-7 and was led by senior Kara Bajema's 20 kills.
Baylor, now 29-1, got 11 kills from Shelly Stafford and 10 from Gia Milana to complement Pressley.
Badgers sweep Nebraska again
The last time Wisconsin hosted an NCAA regional, in 2016, the Badgers suffered one of their all-time heartbreaks. A senior-led team had a 2-0 lead over a freshmen-led Stanford squad in the final, but the Cardinal rallied for a 3-2 win and a trip to the final four, where they won the title.
That kind of disappointment wasn't going to happen again to Wisconsin. Led by Molly Haggerty's 13 kills, the Badgers continued their recent mastery over Nebraska, winning 25-18, 25-22, 25-19. Wisconsin also won both of their regular-season meetings; the Badgers have defeated the Huskers in their past five meetings dating back to the 2017 season.
The Badgers lost to fellow Big Ten team Illinois in a regional final last year and to Stanford in a regional semifinal in 2017. Wisconsin came into this season eyeing a return to the final four for the first time since 2013, but things didn't start very well.
Wisconsin lost back-to-back matches at home to Marquette and to Baylor on Sept. 5 and 6. The Badgers fell again at home on Sept. 19 to Washington, then lost again to the Huskies in a return match two days later in Seattle.
The Badgers entered Big Ten play with a 4-4 record. But they won the next 12 in a row and 18 of their final 20 regular-season matches entering the tournament, winning the Big Ten championship along the way and earning an all-important top-four seed.
Golden Gophers prevail in Austin
Minnesota played with a lot of pressure last season, with the final four in Minneapolis and the team's desire to be in it. That pressure boiled over in the regional semifinals, when it lost at home to Oregon.
This year is different, as the No. 7-seeded Golden Gophers return to their first final four since 2016, after ending Louisville's Cinderella run with a 3-0 win in the Austin Regional final.
Minnesota had lost standout setter Samantha Seliger-Swenson following her senior season, and their only returning setter was Bayley McMenimen, who did not play as a freshman last season. But there was help on the way. Kylie Miller transferred in from UCLA, and the Gophers have had success with both 6-2 (two-setter) and 5-1 (one-setter) systems. But Miller has really stepped forward for the Gophers; she had 28 assists in the regional final.
Minnesota had lost three Big Ten matches, two of them to fellow final four team Wisconsin. A 3-1 win at Penn State to end the regular season gave the Gophers an extra boost of confidence heading into the NCAA tournament. But they almost had another heartbreak at home, surviving two match points in the second round to Creighton to win 3-2.
In the regional semifinals, Minnesota took the court against Florida right after Texas had just lost on its home court. The Gophers got down 2-1 to the Gators, but once again rallied for a 3-2 win.
Stanford going for title No. 9
Stanford advances to final four with win vs. Penn State
Stanford women's volleyball jumps back from a slow start to defeat Penn State in straight sets and advance to the final four in Pittsburgh.
No program has advanced to more final fours or won more national titles than Stanford, and the Cardinal will head to Pittsburgh after a dominant victory over Penn State.
The match at first looked like it would be similar to the five-set scare the Cardinal got from Utah in Friday's regional semifinals, as the Penn State started off with a 19-13 lead.
But the Cardinal found another gear. Trailing 22-19, Stanford scored six consecutive points on setter Jenna Gray's serve and won the set 25-22. There was no stopping the Cardinal after that; they won the next two sets 25-15 and 25-17.
Stanford star Kathryn Plummer followed her 29-kill semifinals performance by recording 24 kills and hitting .512. Madeleine Gates had 11 kills and hit .733. As a team, the Cardinal hit .486 in the first set, .607 in the second and .500 in the third.
Stanford next faces a Minnesota squad that defeated the Cardinal 3-1 on Sept. 14 in the Pac-12/Big Ten Challenge at Penn State. Stanford is currently on a 15-match winning streak.
Best of the third round
'Cinderella' Louisville upsets Texas, preps for Minnesota
Louisville advances to first regional final
Louisville finishes off the upset against Texas in Austin and the Cardinals move on to their first regional final.
Texas had not lost at home since September 2018 to Stanford. And the Longhorns had not lost a home NCAA tournament match since 2006, when Stanford beat them in the regional final. In short, coming to Gregory Gymnasium is usually a heartbreaker for visiting teams. But Friday, the Cardinals were the ones to break hearts.
Unseeded Louisville -- which lost its top player, senior outside hitter Melanie McHenry, to a knee injury in October -- stunned Texas and knocked the two-time former national champions out of the tournament. The Cardinals won the first two sets by the score of 25-22, and for the second match in a row, Texas had to rally. The Longhorns, who were co-Big 12 champions with Baylor and spent several weeks at No. 1 in the American Volleyball Coaches Association coaches poll, were able to win in five sets in the second round vs. UC Santa Barbara. But not Friday.
Texas looked good in winning the third set 25-17 and the fourth 25-18. But the Longhorns got behind early in the fifth set. And even when they got a reversal of a call and got a point in their favor to make the score 9-5 instead of 10-4, they couldn't quite climb all the way back, as Louisville won 15-12.
Outside hitter Micaya White finished her Texas career with 20 kills, but she also had eight errors. As a team, Texas hit just .129 in the fifth set.
Opposite hitter Aiko Jones led Louisville with 23 kills. Cardinals coach Dani Busboom Kelly won national championships at Nebraska as both a player and assistant coach before taking over at Louisville in 2017. Cardinals freshman outside hitter Amber Stivrins joins her older sister, Nebraska junior middle blocker Lauren Stivrins, in the Elite Eight. The Huskers are in the Madison final.
The second semifinal also went five sets, as No. 7 Minnesota prevailed 15-11 over No. 10 Florida in the final set. Last year, the Gophers were upset in the regional semifinal on their home court and didn't have the chance to play in the final four in Minneapolis. But they kept their hopes alive of making it to the national semifinals this year by rallying after being down 2-1.
The Gophers spread out their offense, with four players getting double-digit kills, led by senior Alexis Hart's 16.
Stanford and Penn State meet again
Utah has no chance on Plummer's spike
Kathryn Plummer gets up and hammers down a spike to win the point for Stanford.
Stanford and Penn State played in the regional final last year, which the Cardinal won 3-1. Stanford won their regular-season matchup this year in State College, Pennsylvania, 3-1 on Sept. 13. They'll play each other again on Saturday with a final four bid on the line after both survived third-round upset bids on Friday.
The 11th-seeded Nittany Lions went down 2-1 to Cincinnati, which took out No. 6 seed Pittsburgh in the second round and almost became Friday's second Cinderella story. But they blitzed the Bearcats 25-12 in the fourth set and then held on in five. The biggest key for Penn State was defense at the net: The Nittany Lions had 14 blocks to just one for Cincinnati, led by Kaitlyn Hord's nine. Jonni Parker had 17 kills to lead Penn State.
Jordan Thompson ended her outstanding Cincinnati career with 30 kills.
Penn State had to work hard to make the final, and the host Cardinal didn't have any easier time beating Utah. Stanford had defeated the Utes twice in the regular season, but both of those matches were close, one a five-setter. It was more of the same Friday.
Utah won the first set 25-22, then Stanford ran away with the next two, 25-14 and 25-10. But the Utes dominated the fourth set 25-12 and put the Cardinal in jeopardy of joining Texas on the sideline.
But Stanford was able to pull out the victory in the fifth set, getting a monster of a match from senior outside hitter Kathryn Plummer: 29 kills, 10 digs, 7 blocks. Seven of her kills were in the final set.
Baylor ready to meet Washington
The No. 1-seeded Bears have never reached a regional final in the NCAA volleyball tournament. But you wouldn't know that by how smooth it's looked so far. Baylor dropped its only set of the tournament against No. 16 seed Purdue on Friday, but still won comfortably 3-1.
This was just the second time Baylor had even played in a regional semifinal. The Bears were Big 12 co-champions with Texas, the only team that has defeated Baylor this season. The Longhorns were knocked out of the tournament Friday, but Baylor's magical season continues.
Marieke Van der Mark, a 6-foot-6 sophomore opposite, led Baylor with 16 kills, while junior outside hitter Yossiana Pressley had 15.
Baylor will face Washington, which is seeking its fifth trip to the final four. The No. 8 seed Huskies, who were second to Stanford in the Pac-12 regular-season standings, beat No. 9 Kentucky 3-1. It ended the terrific career of Wildcats outside hitter Leah Edmond, the SEC player of the year, who finished with 17 kills.
Washington was led by senior outside hitter Kara Bajema with 24 kills. The Huskies also made the final four in 2004, '05, '06 and '13, and won the 2005 national championship.
All-Big Ten battle
No. 4 seed and regional host Wisconsin has swept all three foes so far in the NCAA tournament, with Texas A&M being the latest on Friday. Next up will be an opponent that the Big Ten champion Badgers swept twice during the regular season ... but likely expect a much tougher match from on Saturday.
That's No. 5 seed Nebraska, which has won five NCAA titles and advanced Friday with a sweep of Hawai'i.
Junior middle blocker Dana Rettke led Wisconsin with 14 kills, hitting .667 for the match with no errors. Junior outside hitter Molly Haggerty had 12 kills. Nebraska was led by junior outside hitter Lexi Sun, who hit .619 with 14 kills.
The Badgers beat the Huskers 3-0 in Lincoln, Nebraska, on Oct. 5, and did the same thing in Madison on Nov. 24. Wisconsin is seeking its third trip to the final four; the Badgers lost in the 2000 NCAA final to Nebraska and in the 2013 final to Penn State.
Best of the second round
No more hometown heroes
Pittsburgh's volleyball team was hoping to play in the final four in the Panthers' own city later this month, but that dream died early in the NCAA volleyball tournament. In the second round Saturday, No. 6 seed Pitt lost 3-2 to Cincinnati, the Bearcats taking the fifth set 15-13.
Pitt lost only once during the regular season, on Sept. 22 to Penn State. The Panthers also had beaten the Nittany Lions on Sept. 20, and the NCAA bracket had them set up to meet each other for a third time in the regional semifinals.
BIGGEST WIN IN PROGRAM HISTORY!!!!!!!!!! pic.twitter.com/DrIPQO048E— Cincinnati VBall (@GoBearcatsVB) December 8, 2019
But behind 27 kills from Jordan Thompson, who led the nation with 6.43 kills per set in the regular season, Cincinnati prevailed. She also had 27 kills in the Bearcats' first-round victory over VCU. The 6-foot-4 Thompson had a 50-kill match in November against UConn.
Pitt went unbeaten in ACC play and had no problems in sweeping Howard in the first round. But after going up 2-1 with a dominant 25-16 third-set win against Cincinnati, the Panthers couldn't close it out.
Cincinnati had the best record in the American Athletic Conference at 15-1, but the Bearcats were upset in the conference tournament by Central Florida. The Knights earned the automatic NCAA bid, but the Bearcats got an at-large bid -- and have made the most of it.
Next up for Cincinnati, though, is another tall task: seven-time NCAA champion Penn State, the No. 11 seed, in the regional that will be hosted by Stanford. The Nittany Lions beat Towson 3-1 in the second round.
Pac-12 showdown in semis at Stanford
Defending national champion Stanford, the No. 3 seed, swept Cal Poly in the second round, and now faces a familiar foe in Utah. The Utes knocked off No. 14 seed BYU, although as well as Utah has played, it wasn't much of an upset.
And while that means the Cardinal won't be facing one of the teams that beat them this season -- BYU won 3-1 at Stanford on Sept. 21 -- the Utes also present a difficult challenge. The Cardinal had to go the distance against Utah in their meeting at Stanford on Oct. 20, winning the fifth set 17-15.
In the rematch at Utah on Nov. 22, the Utes won the first set, but Stanford pulled out a 3-1 victory.
Texas survives scare
Texas' Gregory Gymnasium is one of the toughest places to play in women's college volleyball. And when the No. 2 seed Longhorns went down 2-1 in the second round of the NCAA tournament on Friday, they needed all the building's energy to rally. Plus an assist from a former Longhorns player.
Texas got a scare from UC Santa Barbara but rallied for a 3-2 victory, winning the fifth set 15-10. It is the 14th consecutive year the Longhorns have advanced to the regional semifinals, which Texas will host next Friday and Saturday. Logan Eggleston led Texas with 22 kills.
Khat Bell, who was on Texas' 2012 national championship team, came down from the stands after the Longhorns lost the third set 25-18. She gave the team a quick pep talk while coach Jerritt Elliott and his staff convened, and it definitely seemed to have an impact. Elliott told his team afterward that its demeanor changed for the better, and it was noticeable in their 25-18 fourth-set win.
"I couldn't sit there any longer; it was hard to watch them kind of crumble under the pressure," said Bell, who now plays volleyball professionally. "I said, 'If I was out there on the court, what would I say to them?'
"When things are going tough, pull it out, look to each other, take care of each other. You've got to find a way."
Texas next faces Louisville, which upset No. 15 seed Western Kentucky 3-2 on Friday, ending the Hilltoppers' 28-match winning streak.
Gophers survive challenge
Minnesota suffered a heartbreaking loss at home last year in the regional semifinals, falling to Oregon and missing a chance to potentially play in the final four in Minneapolis.
Saturday, it looked as if the No. 7 Gophers were going to have a rough ending at home again, as they faced two match points in the fourth set against Creighton. But Minnesota rallied to win four consecutive points and take the set 26-24, eventually winning the fifth set 15-10.
"I'm really proud of our athletes for finding a way," Minnesota coach Hugh McCutcheon said.
The Gophers move on to the regional hosted by Texas, where they will face No. 10 seed Florida. Minnesota's survival means the Big Ten moved five teams into the Sweet 16, the most of any conference. The Pac-12 and SEC have advanced three teams each, the Big 12 two.
Wisconsin keeps rolling
The No. 4 seed Badgers had no trouble with UCLA, sweeping the Bruins in the second round. Wisconsin, which won the Big Ten title, is seeking its first NCAA title and will face No. 13 seed Texas A&M next.
Meanwhile, five-time NCAA champion Nebraska, the No. 5 seed, was pushed by Missouri in the second round. In the Huskers' 3-1 win, they dropped the first set and outlasted the Tigers 32-30 in the third set. They face No. 12 Hawai'i, which swept San Diego in Saturday's late match.
Baylor stays on track
No. 1 seed Baylor swept USC in Saturday's second round, advancing to the regional semifinals for the second time in program history. The Bears, whose only loss was to fellow Big 12 champ Texas, will next face No. 16 seed Purdue.
Also advancing in the Baylor regional was No. 9 Kentucky, which swept Michigan. The Wildcats will meet No. 8 seed Washington, which swept South Carolina on Saturday. Washington, which won the 2005 NCAA title, is the only team left in this region that has advanced to a final four before.
Best of the first round
Raise the roof
Yes, if the ball hits the ceiling, it is playable. Case in point, this rally between Utah and Illinois.
Height doesn't matter
Florida middle blocker Rachel Kramer is 6-foot-8 and precisely a foot taller than Alabama State outside hitter Bayle' Bennett. But that height advantage didn't matter when Bennett blocked the Gators' star in the first round on Thursday.
Kramer got the last laugh, however, when the 10th-seeded Gators won in straight sets.
No. 16 seed Purdue beat Wright State in straight sets, and the Boilermakers celebrated in the best way possible: a Tik Tok to "I Will Survive."