On Sunday afternoon, one of American sports’ great rivalries will be renewed as Nebraska and Texas face off for the 2023 NCAA Division I Women’s Volleyball Championship at Amalie Arena.
For the players, it’s just another match. However, both sides are aware of the history the former conference rivals share — and the animosity between the fan bases who will be watching in the arena and on television.
“I do know that there’s that long-term rivalry there,” Texas middle blocker Asjia O’Neal said. “And even if you don’t grow up in the state of Texas and you don’t really know much about it, you’re going to figure it out really quickly once you get here. I know our fans don’t necessarily like each other either, so they’re definitely going to be really riled up during the game.”
The Lakers-Celtics comparison came from Texas coach Jerritt Elliott, who has squared off against John Cook many times over the years.
“When you have so many times that you’ve played a team in the championship or the Final Four, that even existed way before I was, and I’ve been here for 23 years,” Elliott said after the Longhorns took down Wisconsin on Thursday. “I think there’s just such a rich tradition of alumni, All-Americans, people that have won National Championships on both sides. It’s Lakers-Celtics. Regardless of how long they’ve been, they’re going to be fired up to play each other.”
Nebraska is 2-0 against the Longhorns in title matches, winning 3-1 in 1995 and 3-0 in 2015, though Texas has the edge in overall tournament record at 4-3. Nebraska is going for its sixth championship while Texas is competing for its fourth.
Texas entered the season as the preseason No. 1 team in the AVCA Poll as the reigning champion, but the Longhorns stumbled out of the gates and Nebraska slid into the No. 1 spot-midseason after taking down Wisconsin. The Huskers have remained at the top ever since, but don’t tell Nebraska sophomore Bekka Allick that this is a deserved championship matchup. She prefers another word.
“I don’t think anybody deserves anything,” Allick said. “I think at the end of the day it’s about what you earn. Yes, we’ve set a bunch of records, we had the Memorial game, things are working out, we have a couple All-Americans, but at the end of the day, you don’t deserve anything. You earn. The sweep [against Pitt], it didn’t just happen. That was play by play. It’s 25 one-point games and we had to do it three times.”
That being said, Nebraska was the No. 1 overall seed for a reason. The Huskers are 33-1 and boast the top defense in the country (.135 opponent hitting percentage) along with the 18th-ranked offense (.278). The Huskers saw four players named to the AVCA All-America teams, two of them first-teamers.
“I think they’ve got every facet of the game,” Elliott said. “They play at a really high level, and they’re very efficient. They’ve got a great backcourt defense with the smalls. They’ve got really good blocking. They’ve got a lot of good arms. Bergen [Reilly] is setting the ball really well, and they block well. So they can put a lot of pressure on you from the service line. They pass really well. There’s a reason that they’re whatever-and-1. We’re excited. It should be a really good matchup for us and excited to play it.”
The Longhorns are no slouch, however. Texas is 14th in offense (.282) and dismantled Wisconsin from the service line in the semifinal with 11 aces and just seven errors in four sets.
“Texas is known for their athleticism,” Cook said. “He’s done different systems, different tempos, all those things. You play Texas, you’re going to play against a physical, athletic team.”
Leading the way for the Longhorns are two of the best in the country at their respective positions, middle blocker Asjia O’Neal and outside hitter Madisen Skinner. The 6-foot-3 O’Neal, the daughter of former NBA All-Star Jermaine O’Neal, is averaging 1.59 blocks per set (second in the country) and 1.93 kills per set on .404 hitting. Skinner, who is chasing her third straight national title after winning with Kentucky in 2021, is also the daughter of a former NBA player, Brian Skinner. She was a National Player of the Year contender after averaging 4.78 kills per set on .296 hitting with 44 aces.
“O’Neal’s playing on the national team this year, so she’s going to be a handful to stop,” Cook said. “What we try to do is slow her down. Try to touch it, dig it, or serve it so it’s hard to set her. That’s what you’ve got to do. If everything’s perfect, she’s going to kill it, and we’ve got to side out. That’s the bottom line.
“Skinner is one of the premier players in the country, and she’s going to also make some big kills. We’ve got to take advantage of the opportunities we can when we can dig her or block her again. You try to control those guys and not let them have huge nights.”
Skinner went off in the semifinals with 18 kills, nine digs and six aces while O’Neal added 11 kills on .688 hitting, four blocks and two aces. Sophomore libero Emma Halter, averaging 3.89 digs per set, went off for 19 digs against the Badgers. Freshman setter Ella Swindle put up 46 assists, five digs and four kills as the Longhorns hit .274 and held the Badgers to .223.
The Nebraska block will play a big role on Sunday against the high-powered Longhorns. The Huskers have been a bit inconsistent with scoring points off their block this season, but they’ve really turned it up in the tournament with 11 stuffs against Georgia Tech, 17 against Arkansas and 15 against Pittsburgh, with Allick right in the middle of it.
“We’ve got to touch balls,” Allick said. “At the end of the day as a middle blocker, you’ve got to slow them down. When you get a stuff, praise God and you move on. At the end of the day, what I can control is just touching them. If I can shut them down, that’s great.”
Cook highlighted the serve and pass game, following the game plan and winning long rallies as the Nebraska keys to the match. Elliott went a bit more in-depth with his keys.
“I think one that every coach will say is the serve and pass game has to be on point,” Elliott said. “I really believe that these games come to out-of-system play. You’ve got to find ways to be able to score. There’s enough good players — schematically, there’s a lot of teams that scheme and try to do things. Typically as a program, we do not do that even when we should be doing that in the regular season because we know that, when we get to this point, you can’t scheme because they’ve got five good attackers and they’re coming everywhere. So we’ve got to be great at reading in what we do. We’re confident in what we’re doing in that system, and then we train a ton out of system in our practice gym. So non-setters setting, great swings, attack selection is going to be a key. First ball sideout and the transition game is going to be everything that determines this match tomorrow.”
First serve on Sunday is set for 3 p.m. on ABC and WatchESPN with Courtney Lyle, Holly McPeak and Katie George on the call.