As junior outside hitter Anna DeBeer took a victory lap Saturday in front of a partisan red-clad crowd at Louisville’s KFC Yum! Center, one thought raced through her head after a pulse-pounding five-set victory over Oregon.
“Don’t trip!” the Louisville native said, unable to contain a broad smile.
DeBeer didn’t trip and neither did her Cardinals — stumbled, maybe– as they reach the NCAA national semifinals for the second straight year with a 25-23, 23-25, 13-25, 27-25, 15-6 victory over the Ducks in Louisville.
When it made the national semifinals a year ago, Louisville, no doubt, was looked on as something of a party crasher. The Cardinals were making their first appearance at that level and, along with conference foe and fellow semifinalist Pitt, gave ACC volleyball the chance to stick out its collective chest with perennial stalwarts from the Big Ten and Pac 12.
The Cardinals (30-2) entered 2022 with most of their key players from last December’s march still in the fold. So the mission was to prove theirs was no one-off proposition.
Besides the pressure of proving themselves all over again, the Cardinals entered the regional final riding a streak of 21 consecutive sets won dating to their reverse sweep of Georgia Tech on November 11.
So how would Louisville respond, especially if they lost a set?
Or how about two?
“Oregon is a hell of a team and played so well,” Louisville coach Dani Busboom Kelly said. “We knew that we were going to have a hard time stopping them, and we did. Hats off to them. They played a great match.”
Said DeBeer: “They pushed us in ways we haven’t been pushed in a while, and I think it just took every single person on this team to come out and do their job and get back in our rhythm.”
Busboom Kelly now gets a homecoming. She returns to Omaha, Nebraska where she starred for the Huskers on a national championship team (2006) and won a national title as an assistant coach.
In 2021, she became the first woman coach to lead a team to an undefeated regular season. She will try (again) to become the first to lead a team to the national championship. Last season’s attempt was foiled in the semifinals by eventual national champion Wisconsin.
“It’s pretty emotional,” Busboom Kelly said. “I just give a lot of credit to our team. We just kind of show them the path. They’re the ones that are performing, and they’re the ones that are out in the community and they’re the ones that these fans love.
“I felt like I took so much from my playing career, and it’s great to see these guys do the same thing. They earn it every single day.”
The fifth set was all Louisville. The Cardinals took a 7-3 lead before a kill and block by Karson Bacon on successive points brought Oregon back. But the Ducks would score only once more from there as Louisville reserved their spot in the final four.
“We can out-team anybody, and that’s what it came down to in game five,” Busboom Kelly said. “It took some people who hadn’t played big roles in a long time, but that’s what we’re about. We’ve got to trust everybody on our team to make big plays, and you saw Ayden Bartlett and Ceci Rush just come off the bench and have the biggest runs of the match.
“That was a really good feeling and really cool to see those players step up.”
Opponents likely don’t fear the likes of Bartlett and Rush the way they do DeBeer or ACC Player of the Year Claire Chausse. But yet they made important contributions.
Rush served on the deciding point of the fourth set. She also had four consecutive service points in the fifth set that broke a 3-3 tie and sent the Cardinals on their way.
Bartlett later had a four-point service run of her own that turned a 9-5 Louisville lead into an insurmountable 13-5 margin.
There was only one brief scare for Louisville in the fifth set. DeBeer, who had just worked herself all the way back from a knee injury that forced her to sit out 12 matches — she still sported a heavy brace on her left leg — slipped on some sweat that caused her to wrench the injured leg.
DeBeer was hobbled for a moment but stayed in. Not that she ever had any thoughts about coming out, she said afterward.
Busboom Kelly said when DeBeer was cleared to play after the injury, she worked her into the back row because her skill, attitude and leadership were needed on the court.
“She’s like my safety blanket,” Busboom Kelly said. “When she’s out there, I feel we’re going to win, and we’re going to compete.”
Compete she did, looking as if she had no knowledge of the awkward-looking brace that engulfed most of her left leg. DeBeer finished with 17 kills, 10 digs and two block assists, earning regional MVP honors, an extra feather in the cap for the hometown girl.
Chaussee had 13 kills and nine digs. Redshirt senior Aiko Jones added 12 kills, two aces, five digs and two total blocks. Sophomore libero/defensive specialist Elena Scott had five aces and 15 digs, and grad-student setter Raquel Lazaro, who transferred from USC to fill the considerable gap left by the graduation of Tori Dilfer, had 45 assists.
But it was a struggle against an Oregon team (26-6) that held Louisville to .217 hitting — at one point in the fourth set, the Cardinals were hitting only .183 — far below its eighth-in-the-nation mark of .292.
Louisville captured the first set despite Chaussee and DeBeer combining for a grand total of one kill. Helped by six Oregon service errors, the Cardinals won their 22nd consecutive set in a row, including opening the NCAA Tournament with sweeps of Samford, Purdue and Baylor.
“Whenever you’re on the road in this type of environment like this,” you’ve got to win the close ones,” sixth-year Oregon coach Matt Ulmer said. “If my experience tells me anything, it’s that. We lost the first one by two, and we lost the fourth one by two.
“We’re in the third set and really rolling, and all I’m thinking is, ‘Dang, that first set that got away from us.’ ”
The second set also was tightly contested. Louisville opened with a 7-2 lead. Oregon, however, scored eight of the next 11 points to forge a 10-10 tie. As the Ducks aided the Cardinals’ first-set with service errors, Louisville returned the favor in the second set as eight consecutive Oregon points came as the result of Louisville errors.
The third set was all Oregon, which jumped to an 8-0 lead and was never seriously threatened en route to a 25-13 rout. During the set, fifth-year senior Brooke Nuneviller reached 500 kills for the season, giving the Ducks two outside hitters with 500 kills each. Pac 12 Freshman of the Year Mimi Colyer already had eclipsed the 500 mark a couple of matches prior.
“We scared ourselves, and I guess we scared the whole city of Louisville,” said redshirt senior opposite Jones. “But the look in our eyes at that moment was like, ‘This is not us. What are we freakin’ doing?’ Regardless of the outcome, we’re not going out looking like chumps. We went out looking like studs.”
Oregon appeared on its way to its first national semifinal in a decade — played, interestingly enough, in Louisville — leading 23-21 in the fourth set after a kill by Morgan Lewis and a Louisville hitting error. Lewis did not play in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament, but she helped the Ducks defeat Nebraska by coming off the bench to record 13 kills in the five-set win over Nebraska.
Lewis had 13 more kills Saturday.
The Cardinals rallied to tie the score at 23-23 on an Oregon error and a kill by Chaussee. Oregon got to set point thanks to a Cardinals blocking error, but the Ducks gave the point right back with an attack error.
The Cardinals scored the next two points — a kill by Chaussee and an attack error by Colyer — to send the match to a fifth set.
“To finish out that fourth set … we were down 24-23, and just to have that trust in everyone, trust in each other, I think that’s what brought us out on top in that fourth,” DeBeer said. “We weren’t going to lose that fifth set after that fourth set.”
Added Busboom Kelly: “I would say I felt relief after winning that Game 4, because I always feel good going into game five. Physically, I feel like we’re not going to be outworked, and, competitively, I feel really good.”
Said Jones: “We’re not winning that fourth set just to come out and lose that fifth set. We’re taking the game.”
On the other side, it was the end of a brilliant career for Nuneviller. The product of Chandler, Arizona, finished her time in a Ducks uniform with more than 1,500 kills and 2,000 digs.
As a result of a post-match nosebleed, Nuneviller appeared at Oregon’s news conference with a cotton wad visible in her left nostril, perhaps fitting for the slugfest that had just taken place. She reflected on a season that saw Oregon set program records for conference wins (17-3 in the Pac 12) and longest winning streak (16, which was ended by Louisville).
“I told my teammates after that I would rather lose in the elite eight with them than play in the final four with any other team,” said Nuneviller, who finished with 15 kills and 16 digs. “This group is just so special, and I have cherished every single moment I have had with this team.
“Louisville and us are pretty neck-and-neck. We had chances to win that match — I guess that’s what makes it hurt that much more — but I have no regrets about my decision to go to Oregon, and I am so happy to have had the career that I’ve had.”
Ulmer can look forward to several of his key players coming back, not the least of which is Colyer, who entered the match averaging 4.23 kills per set. Kiari Robey, a sophomore middle who had nine kills and hit .615 on Saturday, returns, as will redshirt junior setter Hannah Pukis, a three-time all-conference selection who had 50 assists, 12 digs and an ace.
Junior libero Georgia Murphy, an all-Pac 12 honorable mention, had two aces and 12 digs, and also returning is sophomore outside Daley McClellan. McClellan was one of the unsung heroes of the win over Nebraska, contributing seven digs, three aces and five assists.
Redshirt junior Bacon was another off-the-bench contributor against Nebraska, and she followed that with a 10-kill, seven-block effort on Saturday.
“Everything that’s good with college volleyball is these two teams,” Ulmer said.“I really appreciate how Dani does it; how Louisville does it. The way their players fight. And I just couldn’t be more proud of the group that we have. They’re really special, and I’m going to be very sad to not have some of these seniors back.”
For Louisville, senior middle Amaya Tillman added eight kills and seven total blocks.
DeBeer wiped a tear from her cheek as she talked about the emotion of getting back to the national semifinals in front of her home crowd. Busboom Kelly hopes she is the next to take a victory lap around a court she knows well.
Regardless, the Cardinals have proven that they are for real and not likely to fade anytime soon.
“I don’t know, six years ago, if I thought we’d ever do this,” Busboom Kelly said. “And to do it twice is incredible.”
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