The NCAA women’s volleyball Sweet 16 started Thursday with first serve at noon ET in Pittsburgh. By the time the last point was scored at Stanford some 15 hours later, all the No. 1 seeds had survived — but a No. 2 had tumbled.
It all set up Saturday’s regional finals, the last step on the Road to Tampa, site of the national semifinals and final. The eight teams left have combined to win 18 national championships, including last year’s winner, Texas. The No. 2 Longhorns had the longest match of a long Thursday, coming back from down 2-1 and facing a match point to defeat Tennessee in five sets.
The No. 2 seed that fell was 2020 national champion Kentucky, which was upset in five sets by fellow SEC team Arkansas, a No. 3 seed that advanced to the Elite Eight for the first time in program history.
Another No. 2, Louisville, also had to go five sets to beat No. 3 Creighton. The only regional that didn’t have a five-set match in the semifinals was in Madison, as No. 1 Wisconsin beat Penn State 3-1 and No. 2 Oregon swept Purdue.
Saturday’s regional finals are all on ESPNU and the ESPN App starting at 4 p.m. ET. Here’s a look at the matchups.
Pittsburgh regional: ACC rivals meet again
Final: No. 1 Pitt vs. No. 2 Louisville, 4 p.m. ET
These programs are a perfect example of bringing in the right coach and getting commitment from the athletic department and the community. Pitt had one victory over a top-10 team in program history before Dan Fisher took over in 2013. In his 11 seasons at Pitt, he is 286-66 (81.3 winning percentage) and the Panthers have become one of the best programs in the country.
Like Pitt, Louisville is going for its third consecutive appearance in the national semifinals. Dani Busboom Kelly had a volleyball royalty pedigree before taking over the Cardinals in 2017: She won national championships as a player and assistant at Nebraska. She is 173-37 (82.4 winning percentage) in seven seasons with the Cardinals. Last year, Louisville beat Pitt in the national semifinals, but lost to Texas in the championship.
In their ACC matches this season, Pitt and Louisville split, with each winning on their home court. ACC freshman of the year Olivia Babcock led Pitt with 15 kills in its sweep of Washington State on Thursday. For Louisville, Charitie Luper and Anna DeBeer combined for 39 kills to hold off Creighton in the regional semifinals.
Lincoln regional: Can Razorbacks pull a monumental upset?
Final: No. 1 Nebraska vs. No. 3 Arkansas, 6 p.m. ET
Forgive the “David vs. Goliath” cliché, but it’s apropos here. Nebraska has won five national championships and is one of the premiere women’s college athletic programs of any sport. By contrast, Arkansas has never made the Elite Eight before, but it’s fitting the 28-5 Razorbacks would do so in what’s been a fantastic season for them.
And speaking of underdogs, Arkansas’ Jill Gillen is the ultimate example in today’s volleyball world: a 5-foot-7 outside hitter. That’s generally libero size these days, with so many hitters over 6 feet tall. But Arkansas gave Gillen a chance to prove she could hang with the big girls, and she’s done just that. The Razorbacks’ kills leader had 20 kills and 12 digs in beating Kentucky in the semifinals.
Of course, the Huskers are still heavily favored. The No. 1 overall seed’s lone loss this season was at fellow No. 1 seed Wisconsin. Merritt Beason and Harper Murray average just over seven kills per set combined, and Nebraska has won its three NCAA tournament matches thus far in sweeps.
Madison regional: Ducks try to topple Badgers
Final: No. 1 Wisconsin vs. No. 2 Oregon, 8 p.m. ET
Whoever would have imagined that one day Wisconsin and Oregon would be in the same conference? Yet that will be the case next season in the Big Ten.
This year, though, the Ducks still carry the Pac-12 banner, and they are trying to make it to the national semifinals for the second time in program history. They lost to Texas in the national championship match in 2012. This is the Ducks’ second straight Elite Eight appearance; last year they fell in five sets to Louisville in the regional final.
Oregon has won all of its NCAA tournament matches thus far in sweeps. Mimi Colyer, Morgan Lewis and Gabby Gonzales have been a powerful hitting trio this season for Oregon.
Wisconsin won the national championship in 2021 and is hoping to add to that hardware. The Badgers have advanced to the national semis five times, and they have one of the best homecourt atmospheres in the sport at UW Fieldhouse. Big Ten player of the year Sarah Franklin led the Badgers with 17 kills in the semifinal win over Penn State.
Stanford regional: Battle of the big-timers
Final: No. 1 Stanford vs. No. 2 Texas, 10 p.m. ET
Speaking of conference changes … next season the Cardinal go to the ACC and the Longhorns head to the SEC. This will be a Pac-12 vs. Big 12 battle, though, and also a showdown between two of the most successful programs in volleyball history.
Stanford leads the way with a record nine NCAA titles, the last of which came in 2019. Texas has three titles and is the defending champion. Things didn’t look good for the Longhorns on Thursday when they were a point away from elimination in the fourth set against Tennessee. They scrambled out of that and won the regional semifinal in the fifth set. Stanford lost the first set of its semifinal against Arizona State, but then won the next three sets.
Both teams has their conference’s player of the year: Kendall Kipp for the Cardinal and Madisen Skinner for the Longhorns.