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Originally published December 14, 2013 at 11:54 PM | Page modified December 15, 2013 at 2:04 AM

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Washington volleyball reaches Final Four with astounding rally past USC

The Huskies battled back from two sets down to win a five-set thriller on Saturday night.

Special to The Seattle Times

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LOS ANGELES – Call it an instant classic, and mark it down as one of the greatest comeback wins in Washington volleyball history.

Down 2-0 and appearing to be a step behind a tall and talented USC lineup, the third-seeded Huskies rallied behind a dazzling performance by Krista Vansant to defeat the Women of Troy 3-2 in an NCAA regional final in front of 2,205 at the Galen Center, 26-28, 23-25, 25-22, 25-18, 17-15.

The win put Washington (30-2) into its first Final Four since 2006, and it will serve as the host school on Thursday at Saturday at KeyArena. UW will face second-seeded Penn State on Thursday.

“What a match,” Washington coach Jim McLaughlin said. “It wasn’t pretty all the time, but the intangibles were there. As a coach, I can’t say enough about these guys — the heart, the commitment, all those things that are really important.

“I think the Trojans had our number,” he added, “so this is a huge, huge win for our program.”

Vansant, the Pac-12 Player of the Year, pounded down a career-high 38 kills — an amazing 14 in the fourth set alone — to counter an equally impressive performance by Pac-12 Freshman of the Year Ebony Nwanebu, who finished with 30 kills.

On a night that featured amazing back-line work by the Pac-12’s top two liberos, USC’s Natalie Hagglund and UW’s Jenna Orlandini. Vansant also recorded 30 digs, another career high.

The Huskies withstood two match points in the fifth set and won it, fitting for such an unlikely outcome. Back-to-back kills by senior reserve Gabbi Parker prompted a low-key fist pump from the usually implacable McLaughlin.

Kaleigh Nelson finished with 14 kills and Cassie Strickland, who provided some astounding digs of her own, had 11.

UW had 84 kills to USC’s 73, but after losing the first two sets, it appeared a sad flight home awaited the Huskies.

“I think all of us were not as sharp as we could have been,” Vansant said, “but like Cassie said, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that it was even close to over (at intermission).”

The Huskies had four-point leads early in each of the first two sets but let them both slip away.

UW, in fact, led 19-15 in the first set, but the Women of Troy evened the score with a pair of blocks, a Kylin Munoz attack error and a Nwanebu kill.

The Huskies rallied back and had their first of three set points at 24-22. USC drew even on a Samantha Bricio kill and an error by Nelson. The Women of Troy tied it at 26-26 when UW’s Katy Beals sent a serve into the net, followed by another Nwanebu kill and a Vansant shot that sailed wide.

UW pulled even at 22 after trailing 21-18 in the second set but, after being whistled for a lift, got smoked by Nwanebu for two kills, send UW down 2-0 at intermission for just the third time this season.


Texas and Penn State, the top two seeds in the tournament, also advanced to the Final Four with wins on Saturday, as did 12th-seeded Wisconsin.

Penn State, the No. 2 seed, eliminated seventh-seeded Stanford by a score of 22-25, 25-22, 28-26, 18-25, 15-11 in the Lexington, Ky., regional.

Penn State (32-2), which won four consecutive national titles from 2007 to 2010, has won 23 straight matches.

Senior Ariel Scott, one of two first-team All-Americans in Penn State’s lineup, finished with a match-high 22 kills and Deja McClendon posted 21. Rachel Williams and Jordan Burgess each had 17 kills for Stanford (27-6).

Penn State hit just .187 for the night to Stanford’s .221 but finished with a 77-62 edge in kills.

Top-seeded Texas (27-2) defeated Nebraska, the No. 8 seed, 25-19, 25-22, 25-23 in front of 8,343 at the Devaney Center in Lincoln, Neb.

The Longhorns outblocked Nebraska (26-7) in a big way, 14-3.

In a semifinal at Seattle, Texas will face Wisconsin after the Badgers (27-9), the Big Ten’s fourth-place finisher, defeated Purdue (23-12), the conference’s sixth-place team, 25-22, 23-25, 25-18, 25-21, in Champaign, Ill.

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