Texas was one point away from the Elite 8, but then it got interesting.
No. 4 Texas (25–4, 14–2) took on No. 13 BYU (29–4, 16–2) in the Sweet Sixteen at Gregory Gym on Friday. Just when the Longhorns were one point away from a sweep in the third set, the Cougars extended the contest by two until the Longhorns finally closed it out, 16-14.
For every point gained, BYU had an answer. The Longhorns trailed BYU by one to two points in the first set. The teams tied 13 times, with BYU winning 11 of the tiebreakers. But the Longhorn offense prevailed, as freshman outside hitter Micaya White and senior outside hitter Paulina Prieto Cerame closed out the set with kills for the Longhorns 25-23.
“Paul, a lot of people don’t see the leadership she does and in the middle of the first set she looked at me and said, ‘No one’s stopping you,’ and that just gave me a confidence boost,” White said. “Like alright, no one’s stopping me, I’m just going to keep putting the ball away.”
The Longhorns grabbed a 12-6 lead over the Cougars early in the second set. Sophomore middle blocker Morgan Johnson took control, racking up four kills. The passes soared comfortably into senior setter Chloe Collins’s hands, allowing a variety of sets Johnson could slam. Texas closed out the set in dominant fashion at 25-14.
“So how Micaya had Paul, I had Chloe.” Johnson said. “Chloe gives me so much confidence. She’s always like, ‘I’m coming to you this ball, be up, be ready.’ Knowing that she has that much confidence in me I know I can put down any ball she sends my way. I didn’t care where the block was, I just hit around it.”
Texas would take the lead after a tie at 18-18, but BYU stayed in sight, coming back from a 23-21 deficit to tie the Longhorns 24-24. Following a service ace, White was set up for a possible kill, but a confusing lift call landed the Cougars on top, 26-24.
“They are a very good defensive team, and they caused us a lot of problems with our transition game,” head coach Jerritt Elliott said.
BYU was in control in the fourth set, up 18-12. Questionable calls by the officials had the fans and Elliott on their feet. Unable to regain composure, the errors by the Longhorns started to add up: missed serves, blocked hits and dropped balls. Despite closing the gap 21-23, the Longhorns were unable to close out the set. BYU extended the contest with a 25-22 victory.
“Yeah, we had to swing to win it and go 3-0 and feel pretty good about ourselves,” Elliott said. “We didn't do that. But we talked in the locker room, it's 0-0, we've got to come out and play. But you look across the country right now, I think the other three regionals I've seen, they have all gone five.”
But down 12-7 in the fifth set, it didn’t look good for the Longhorns.
Texas was on its toes, careful to not let balls drop to the floor or hits get blocked. Before they knew it, a five-point run tied the game 12-12. Gregory Gym was exuberant as everyone rose to their feet, but Texas allowed two consecutive kills by the Cougars to make it match point, cutting the cheers short. But the Longhorns didn’t give up. Junior outside hitter Ebony Nwanebu and White would swing for their lives, sealing the final three kills to take the match 16-14.
“It was really emotional, and I think I'm more emotional about the fact that we fought so hard,” Nwanebu said. “It's nice to be around a group of people that never for a second thought that we were going to lose, even though most people would believe that if you're down 12-7, you can't come back from that.”