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Originally published Friday, December 16, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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UW Volleyball

UW to play for title

College football has USC vs. Texas. College volleyball has its own dream matchup, a long-anticipated showdown of the nation's top two teams...

Special to The Seattle Times

SAN ANTONIO, Texas — College football has USC vs. Texas. College volleyball has its own dream matchup, a long-anticipated showdown of the nation's top two teams, No. 1 vs. No. 2, Big Red vs. Big Dawg.

With matching 3-0 sweeps Thursday night at the Alamodome, Washington (31-1) and Nebraska (33-1) advanced to the championship match Saturday of the NCAA Final Four, the first time the Huskies have reached the title match.

Third-seeded Washington, ranked No. 2 for most of the 2005 season, posted its fifth straight postseason sweep by defeating 15th-seeded Tennessee 30-25, 30-19, 30-21. In the late match, the Cornhuskers, ranked No. 1 all season long, ended unseeded Santa Clara's Cinderella run by downing the Broncos 30-24, 30-19, 30-21.

It leaves Washington, on a season-long quest to win a national title, just one step, one fairly enormous step, from achieving its goal.

"They're good," said Washington coach Jim McLaughlin. "I don't know how good, but obviously they have a lot of wins, they've done a great job. But so have we. We play two different styles of games, and we'll see how it goes. We're excited, and we believe we can win this thing. We believe it or else we wouldn't be here."

The Huskies are here — the Final Four — for the second straight year. Last year they were defeated in a semifinal by eventual national champion Stanford, an experience no one on the squad wanted to repeat a year later.

"We're pretty calm," said junior setter Courtney Thompson, the nation's assist leader who put up 54 against Tennessee (25-9), the second-place finisher in the Southeastern Conference. "We're happy, but we just want more, and we know it's out there.

Saturday

Washington vs. Nebraska, 3 p.m., ESPN2

"I think we jumped the gun a little bit early last year in our emotions," Thompson said, recalling the 2004 team's near-giddiness over accomplishing its goal for that season, reaching the Final Four. "Our expectations are a lot different this year. We're just ready to go."

The Huskies found their "go" gear late in the first game against Tennessee, a hot-and-cold team that caught fire in the postseason and upset No. 2 seed Penn State and 10th-seeded Missouri.

Tied at 16, Washington went on a 5-1 run that involved ground-shaking kills by Christal Morrison and Sanja Tomasevic, an ace by serving specialist Ashley Aratani and a pair of hitting errors by the Lady Vols.

Brie Hagerty, with a team-high six kills in the first game, posted three of them in Washington's last seven points of the game as UW never let Tennessee draw closer than three points.

The Huskies opened an eight-point lead midway through the second game and were never seriously challenged thereafter. The Huskies built leads of 7-1 and 15-6 in game three.

Morrison, one of four UW players awarded 2005 All-America status on Wednesday, led the Huskies with 18 kills, Hagerty had six and Tomasevic, like Thompson a first-team All-American this year, had a relatively quiet night with 12 kills.

Candace Lee, with 16 digs, turned in one of her most eye-popping nights of the season, keeping balls alive with seemingly dozens of body-contorting saves.

"She's always like that, even in practice," McLaughlin said.

Lee says she's eager to take on the challenge of facing the team that has occupied the top spot on the coaches' poll all season.

"We've been looking forward to playing them," she said. "They'll be a challenge. It'll be fun."

McLaughlin was pleased with his team's steady play throughout the Tennessee match.

"I thought we were pretty good from start to finish," McLaughlin said. "We just worked hard and stayed on task."

And that, McLaughlin said, is paramount to taking that one final step on the mountain that the Huskies have been climbing all season.

"We don't want to change anything," he said. "We don't want to lose that connection that we have now. We've got to stay physically connected and intellectually connected through this whole thing. That's how championships are won."

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