TAMPA, Fla. — Nebraska coach John Cook was scheduled to speak Friday on a panel at the coaches convention that accompanies the volleyball championship. But he laughed and said he was “going to bail on it” because his team gave him a good reason.
Cook will be preparing for Sunday’s national championship match, which will be televised on ABC for the first time. In Thursday’s semifinals, the No. 1 overall seed Cornhuskers swept the Pitt Panthers, also a No. 1 seed, 25-20, 25-23, 25-17 before a crowd of 19,598 at Amalie Arena. They will face No. 2 seed Texas, which upset No. 1 seed Wisconsin in the other semifinal, 25-22, 20-25, 25-13, 25-16. Texas is the defending champion.
The Huskers (33-1) are in the NCAA final for the 11th time. They’ve won five titles. It is the 10th appearance in the NCAA final for the Longhorns (27-4), who have won three titles (they also won one in the AIAW era). Nebraska beat Texas for the 2015 national championship.
The two schools were conference rivals during their shared time in the Big 12, from 1996 to 2010, before the Huskers moved to the Big Ten. Overall, Nebraska holds a 33-24 edge in the series; the programs first played in 1981 and most recently played in the 2021 NCAA regional finals won by the Huskers.
“There’s such a rich tradition of alumni, All-Americans, people that have won national championships on both sides,” Texas coach Jerritt Elliott said. “It’s Celtics vs. Lakers.”
Or shall we say vibrant red vs. burnt orange.
Texas was a point away from being eliminated by Tennessee in the regional semifinals but rallied to win. Then, the Longhorns beat No. 1 seed Stanford on the Cardinal’s home court to advance to the program’s 15th appearance in the NCAA final four. They seem to be peaking at the right time, as they basically steamrollered the Badgers in the third and fourth sets Thursday.
Serving was a big part of that, as Texas finished with 11 aces. Big 12 Player of the Year Madisen Skinner had six of them, the most by a player in the national semifinals or championship game. She also led Texas with 18 kills and had nine digs.
“We’d scouted them pretty well and knew which players we wanted to serve,” said Skinner, who won a national championship at Kentucky before transferring to Texas and winning another last year. “[It was about] just changing up depth, working on my pace and having a good toss, and trusting myself.”
Texas’ Asjia O’Neal sensed an energy shift in the third set, in which Wisconsin’s 12-point loss was its biggest in any set this season.
“We did a really good job sticking with one another and just kept it on them,” said O’Neal, who had 11 kills.
Meanwhile, Nebraska is in the final four for the 17th time. This season, even with several newcomers including four freshmen who’ve played big roles, Nebraska has carried on its program’s tradition. The arriving players were greeted outside the arena Thursday by the familiar sea of red.
“Nebraska fans are no joke,” said Huskers sophomore middle blocker Bekka Allick, who is from Lincoln. “They all show out, whether we’re at Rutgers, California, Hawaii … I think even in Brazil we had some fans.”
The Huskers traveled to Brazil in May and June to play five exhibition matches, train and explore the country. All the freshmen had graduated high school a semester early, enrolled in college in January, took part in spring volleyball and went on the trip. That’s part of why they haven’t played like rookies this fall: They have had a lot of preparation.
Still, there were enough new faces — including transfer Merritt Beason from Florida — that at first observers weren’t sure what to expect of Nebraska, which lost in the Sweet 16 last season.
“I think that’s what drives us all,” freshman Harper Murray said. “We want to tell [people] it doesn’t matter how old we are.”
And after a record-setting crowd of 92,003 saw the Huskers play at Nebraska’s football stadium on Aug. 30, Cook said he felt very confident about what this team could accomplish.
The Huskers’ lone loss came in a sweep at Wisconsin on Nov. 24; they had defeated the Badgers 3-2 at Nebraska on Oct. 21. Against Pitt, which was making its third consecutive national semifinal appearance, defense was expected to be a key factor, as the Huskers and Panthers were the top two defensive teams in the country.
That proved true in the tone-setting first set. The Panthers had 13 hitting errors — their most of any set this season — some as a result of going for too much against the Huskers’ defense. Nebraska’s block was also fearsome, finishing with 15 total blocks. Allick led the way with three solo blocks and seven block assists.
“When the opponent gets stressed, they’re going to try to hit their comfortable shot as hard as they can,” Allick said. “To be able to take that away early on is something that pays off in the long run.”
By the third set, both teams’ defenses had tired a little, but Nebraska took the biggest advantage, hitting .407 for that set. Murray finished with a team-high 13 kills, and fellow freshman Bergen Reilly had 31 assists.
“They’re all super competitors; that’s their superpower,” Cook said of his freshmen. “The bigger the stage, the bigger the match, the harder they compete.”
ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this story.