– Meghan McClure's
backrow kill on the third match point gave Stanford an unprecedented eighth NCAA women's volleyball championship with a 28-26, 22-25, 25-16, 15-25, 15-12 victory over Nebraska at the Target Center on Saturday night.
In a match that swung wildly to each team, Stanford overcame an early deficit in the fifth set – in only it's third five-setter of the season – and a 9-9 tie before freshman Holly Campbell
sliced a kill through the block to give the Cardinal a lead it would not relinquish.
On the decisive point, Morgan Hentz
had her career-high 32nd dig while making a precise pass to Jenna Gray
, who calmly set McClure's kill between two Cornhusker blockers, ending the first five-set match in an NCAA final since 2009.
"It's an amazing feeling," Hentz said. "It's looking back and seeing your hard work paid off."
This was the second NCAA title for a stellar junior class of Hentz at libero, Gray at setter, Audriana Fitzmorris
at opposite hitter and outside hitter Kathryn Plummer
, the two-time AVCA National Player of the Year.
"Our team … I can't describe how much I love them and the chemistry we have off and on the court," Hentz said. "They're amazing."
Hentz and Plummer, who had a team-high 19 kills, were named co-Most Outstanding Players of the tournament. Campbell had a career-high15 kills, including one on the slide for a 12-10 lead. Moments later, Gray's quick left-handed dump surprised Nebraska for a 13-10 lead and Stanford benefited from a crucial reversal of a serve by Sidney Wilson
that first was ruled out only to be changed to an ace.
In the first set, Nebraska fought off five set points, before the Cardinal pulled it out. With the score 26-26, a crosscourt strike by Nebraska's Lexi Sun went wide as she faced a block of Fitzmorris and Campbell. Finally, on set point No. 6 and Kate Formico
serving, Hentz dug one out before Plummer and McClure had attacks during a long rally that ended when Sun was stuffed by Gray.
After Nebraska (29-7) evened the match, the following two sets were one-sided. Stanford dominated Set Three before Nebraska dominated Set Four, setting the stage for an exciting finish. Of course, that was to be expected. The two schools have combined to win the past four NCAA championships.
The question was: How would Stanford react after being completely overmatched in Set Four?
"We scraped," Stanford coach Kevin Hambly
said. "I'm really proud of the way that they came back after that fourth set. It's hard to turn that around.
"They were saying a lot to each other because they have great leadership. They said they were in this together. All I said is, 'this is why we play volleyball. This is what you dream of. This is why you came to Stanford, to be in this moment. So, just relax and let's start playing our game.'"
Gray had 57 assists, senior Tami Alade
had eight blocks, and Fitzmorris finished with 14 kills.
Gray's leadership and ability to seize the moment was not lost on Plummer.
"She's the best leader a team can have," Plummer said. "She knows when to bring it, she knows when to lay off, she knows when to throw in a joke now and then, and she sets our hitters like we want to. "
Top-seeded Stanford (34-1), which extended its winning streak to 32, broke a tie with Penn State for the most NCAA titles. It was Stanford's second title in three seasons and first under second-year coach Hambly.
The NCAA team title was Stanford's 118th, the most of any school in the country. It was the 54th by a Stanford women's program, and the victory extended Stanford's streak of academic years with at least one NCAA championship to an ongoing record of 43.
Hambly became the third Stanford coach to win a championship, following Don Shaw (1992, 1994, 1996, 1997) and John Dunning (2001, 2004, 2016).
"Part of me is sad that it's over," Hambly said, "because I love coaching these kids."