MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The celebration of Stanford’s NCAA-record eighth national volleyball title was in full swing when the Cardinal players went flat on their backs to flap their arms and legs for some snow angels in the layer of confetti on the court.
There was some exhaustion amid the exhilaration, too, after being pushed to the limit by defending champion Nebraska.
Kathryn Plummer finished with 19 kills and 10 digs, Morgan Hentz had a career-high 32 digs and freshman Holly Campbell added a career-high 15 kills for the Cardinal in a five-set victory over the Huskers on Saturday night, 28-26, 22-25, 25-16, 15-25, 15-12.
“It took us a while to get there. Nebraska kept coming back and back,” Hentz said. “They put up an amazing fight.”
Audriana Fitzmorris added 14 kills, Jenna Gray had 57 assists and Tami Alade had eight blocks for Stanford, which won despite Plummer, the 6-foot-6 two-time national player of the year, hitting only .153 after entering with a .288 percentage for the season.
“We found out other ways to score when I wasn’t scoring,” Plummer said. “Other people stepped up.”
Mikaela Foecke had 27 kills and a game-high 29 points for seventh-seeded Nebraska, which had the crowd at Target Center on its side and effectively minimized the power and precision of Plummer but couldn’t pull away from this towering Stanford team that finished the season on a 32-match winning streak and was determined to avenge a loss to Florida in last year’s semifinals.
“I don’t know that I’ve been part of a match that was more interesting, more hard-fought,” Cardinal coach Kevin Hambly said, adding: “Foecke was unbelievable in that match. We couldn’t touch her. It’s sad to see her leave the NCAA. She’s going to have a long career ahead of her. I think we just all have a lot of respect for that team, how hard they play, the way they defend, the way they scrap.”
The Cardinal (34-1) had a much tougher time than in their three-set victory over BYU in the semifinals against the Huskers (29-7), who were champions in 2015 and 2017. They took a 3-1 lead in the final set, but the Cardinal proved they were much more than the power and precision of Plummer, who’s part of a star-studded junior class with Fitzmorris, who’s also 6-foot-6, Gray and Hentz.
“When you’re only playing to 15 points, you have to side-out very effectively. We let them get a few too many runs and weren’t able to come back. We fought hard at the end, but it wasn’t good enough,” said Foecke, who played in her program-record 22nd NCAA tournament match with fellow senior Kenzie Maloney.
Gray used a quick flip over the net to give Stanford a 13-10 lead, the largest of the fifth set to that point. Sidney Wilson’s serve was initially ruled wide, but Hambly challenged the call and a replay review reversal put Stanford in set point mode.
Foecke responded with a kill to cut the lead to 14-11, and the Huskers took the next point on a net violation. Foecke’s kill attempt on the ensuing play was thwarted by Hentz, who was consistently able to get exceptional height and control on her digs. That allowed Gray to set up Meghan McClure for the winner, sending Stanford into celebration mode. The party paused for a few seconds during an unsuccessful challenge by Nebraska on an attack line fault, but the looks on the faces of the Huskers revealed a team beginning to come to grips with a runner-up finish.
“They have a really huge block. They have really talented hitters. Jenna Gray is a phenomenal setter,” said Lauren Stivrins, who had 19 kills for the Huskers and led their surge in the fourth set.
With setter Nicklin Hames in rhythm, Stivrins scored three of their last seven points before Foecke notched the winner. Stivrins and coach John Cook were having a hard time coming to grips with the departure of Foecke and Maloney.
“They’ve created a legacy here over the last four years that we’re all going to be chasing,” Cook said. “I’m going to have to become a better coach. Our returning players are going to have to find a way to go to another level to reach what these guys have done.”
The “Go Big Red” chant broke out as soon as the national anthem ended, the NBA arena near capacity with a crowd of 18,113 tilted hard toward the Huskers with the Nebraska campus about a six-hour drive away. Those red-clad fans helped set the championship attendance record in Kansas City last year, with 18,516.
Most of the local ticket buyers snagged seats months ago with the hope of cheering on host Minnesota in the final, but the second-seeded Gophers were felled in five sets by Oregon in the round of 16 and the Huskers emerged instead from that region to reach the NCAA semifinals for the fourth straight year.
The only blemish for the Cardinal from the evening came from social media, in the form of a motivational message on the white board in the team locker room. The drawing depicted Stanford’s tree mascot making a crude gesture toward Nebraska’s Huskers mascot with the words “to hell the Huskers” written above it. The image was visible on a Twitter post by the NCAA’s official account for volleyball that was focused on Stanford’s players jubilantly entering the room. That post was deleted, but Stanford athletic director Bernard Muir issued a statement of apology afterward.
“The image in the background of the picture is unacceptable and does not reflect the values of Stanford University,” Muir said. “We have reached out to our colleagues at Nebraska to express our sincerest apologies to the university and its women’s volleyball program. We regret detracting from what was otherwise a great night for the sport of women’s volleyball.”