UW Volleyball reaches Final Four for hometown fans

It was more than exhaustion from a hard-fought match against USC that brought Washington's Krista Vansant to tears.

The junior hitter's career night sent the Huskies home to Seattle for the final push toward the NCAA championship.

"We've created an opportunity where we can do something really special," Vansant said. "I think that when we all click, it could be really special for us."

Third-seeded Washington (30-2) will face second-seeded Penn State in the semifinals at Key Arena on Thursday, following defending champion Texas' match against No. 12 seed Wisconsin. The winners will play for the championship on Saturday night.

Vansant, the Pac-12's player of the year, wasn't the only Washington player in tears following the five-set victory over USC on the Trojans' home court at Galen Center. The Huskies rallied from two sets down and fought off two match points to advance to the semifinals for the first time since 2006.

The 6-foot-2 Vansant buried her face in her hands following a career performance with 38 kills - an NCAA tournament record - and 30 digs.

"The mindset is that you've got to keep your mind on track and think about the right things. Your thoughts can serve you well or they cannot," Washington coach Jim McLaughlin said. "It could have gone the other way. But we were on the game plan. We were right there, in a good volleyball game, a good fight."

Washington is making its fourth trip to the semifinals under McLaughlin, who was also named Pac-12 coach of the year.

Penn State (33-2) is coming off its own five-set victory over Stanford to extend its winning streak to 23 straight matches. Senior Ariel Scott paced the Nittany Lions' offense with 22 kills and eight digs.

Penn State has made 11 overall appearances in the semifinals and has advanced to the championship eight times, winning the national title four straight years from 2007-2010.

Washington holds a 2-1 edge over Penn State in the all-time series, including a 3-1 victory in 2006 in the NCAA quarterfinals in Seattle.

Texas (27-2) swept Nebraska to advance to the Final Four for the fifth time in the past six seasons. All-Americans Haley Eckerman and Bailey Webster combined for 26 kills and only three errors on 73 swings.

The Longhorns have won 10 straight postseason matches, dating back to last season when they beat Oregon for the national championship.

"Every time I go, I make sure to try to cherish it, because you never know when you'll get back. We're on an amazing run as a program," Texas coach Jerritt Elliott said. "It's not something we take for granted, and hopefully we can go up there and take care of business Thursday night against Wisconsin that is playing very hot."

The Longhorns were a perfect 16-0 in the Big 12 this season, paced by the 6-foot-3 Eckerman, an outside hitter from Iowa who was named the conference Player of the Year for the second straight season.

Texas poses a considerable challenge to scrappy Wisconsin (27-9), which advanced to the Final Four for the first time since 2000 with a 3-1 victory over Purdue. Junior outside hitter Deme Morales had a career-high 20 kills and 13 digs for her 18th double-double this season.

"I've said for a while we haven't played our best volleyball, and I still believe that. Confidence means an awful lot in athletics, and I think we've got a team that believes they can take down anybody in the country," said Badgers first-year coach Kelly Sheffield. "I think we're finding ways of getting better. They're blaming themselves, they're going for it, they're not holding back. Special things can happen when those things are coming together."

Wisconsin advanced to the championship match in 2000, losing to Nebraska in five sets.

Texas holds a 4-1 series lead over Wisconsin, last winning 3-0 in the NCAA Austin Regional semifinal in 2006.