As she sat on the bench with the match tied, 15-15, against Florida in the deciding fifth set, junior outside hitter Paulina Prieto Cerame prayed.
“I was praying to God to give us those points so I could go in,” Cerame said.
Cerame’s prayers were answered, and she walked onto the court. The ball came her way on two consecutive points with the sold-out crowd of 4,372 at Gregory Gym on its feet.
Both times Cerame delivered. Two big swings later, the Longhorns prevailed, 17-15, in the set, beating Florida, 3-2, and clinching a fourth straight Final Four appearance.
“I just wanted the ball,” Cerame said. “I went hard because that’s what you do on game point.”
Florida sophomore middle blocker Rhamat Alhassan dominated the first set, taking over the match with her team down, 20-18. Alhassan, a second-team All-American, registered two kills and a block in three consecutive points, deadening the Gregory Gym crowd as Florida went on to take the first frame, 25-22.
“You have to know [Alhassan’s] going to get her straight-down kills,” senior opposite hitter Amy Neal said. “You can’t get frustrated. You have to move on.”
But the Longhorns found a way to slow their opponent’s attack in the second set, just as they had Friday night against UCLA. Texas held Florida to a .191 kill percentage in set two, limiting Alhassan to one kill before winning, 25-22.
Critical to the Longhorns’ success were middle blockers senior Molly McCage and junior Chiaka Ogbogu. The pair slid out to the edge of the court numerous times in the second set, providing them with premier angles to attack the Florida defense. These slide hits resulted in two kills by Ogbogu and two by McCage, including the set clincher.
“I think a lot of teams try to commit their outsides to just two hitters,” Ogbogu said. “It gave us a lot of good opportunities to score tonight.”
Behind the capacity crowd, the Longhorns rode a wave of momentum that carried them to a dominant 25-19, third-set victory. Each kill was accompanied by a raucous ovation from the fans at Gregory Gym, with head coach Jerritt Elliott waving them on every time.
The Longhorns looked well on their way to another victory up, 15-11, in the fourth set. But the match took a sharp turn following a Florida timeout. The Gators went on a furious 14-5 run to close the set, winning, 25-20. Texas’ runaway train toward the Final Four was suddenly stopped in its tracks.
As they headed to their bench, the Longhorns felt down but not out. The veteran-laden squad had been in tough situations before, and Elliott wouldn’t let his team go down easy.
“I just told them I have a lot of confidence in them,” Elliott said. “I try to talk about routines and make sure that our communication is good and that we’re moving on to the next point.”
The deciding set was what one would expect from the two battle-tested teams, each point ending with a thunderous kill or a ragged scrum. Even after the Longhorns seemed to take control at 11-7, Florida once again came storming back, evening the score at 12-12. Back and forth they went until Cerame broke through for the Longhorns. Her back-to-back kills gave Texas the set and the match.
Saturday's victory advances Texas to their seventh Final Four appearance in eight years. A Longhorn run in December now seems like clockwork, but Elliott said he never takes it for granted.
“I’m very, very fortunate to be sitting in this seat,” Elliott said. “I cherish it every day. You never know when you’re gonna make another Final Four.”
Texas will face Minnesota on Thursday in the NCAA semifinal match.