By Greg Garno, Daily Sports Writer
Published December 13, 2012
LOUISVILLE, Ky. — For a team that wasn’t supposed to compete with a No.3 Texas lineup that was taller, faster and stronger, the Michigan volleyball team sure made it close.
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Unranked, without a star and riding a wave of momentum, the Michigan volleyball team caught four teams unprepared in the NCAA Tournament en route to its first-ever Final Four.
But on Thursday, Texas was ready. The Cinderella run ended in a close five set match as the Longhorns won, 25-11, 21-25, 23-25, 25-12, 15-11.
Sophomore setter Lexi Dannemiller did what she did all season, but it ultimately was wasn’t enough. Early in the first set, she took a pass from freshman libero Tiffany Morales and isolated junior outside hitter Lexi Erwin to blast a kill.
The third-ranked Longhorns were waiting at the net, though. A pair of Texas blockers rejected the ball and the Wolverines were left scrambling for it, caught off guard for the first time this postseason.
Michigan, coming off its win over No. 2 Stanford, ended the longest postseason run in its 29-year program history.
“We’re disappointed, we didn’t want to finish this way," said Michigan coach Mark Rosen. "I thought tonight... the way it started, it could have gone a negative direction, and I thought our team did a great job of pulling through and competing extremely well
"I'm proud of this whole team for collectively what they created in the culture of our gym."
Texas went on a 12-1 run in the middle of the first set, finding the holes in Michigan’s defense that few had exploited all season. The Longhorns used another 4-0 run later in the set to take a 1-0 lead. But Rosen, in his 14th season, rallied his team to make a game that looked out of control become manageable.
“Everyone literally made every single error that you could in the first game, so we got all those out of the way,” Erwin said. “The next set we kinda (said) 'you know, they have a three before their name and we don't, so we don't have the pressure on us.' Our team just came out with this fearlessness mentality.”
Tied at seven to begin the second set, Erwin wound up and finished with a hard swing on the ball for a kill. Without celebration, Erwin broke Michigan’s single-season kill record with her 597th. The previous mark, held by outside hitter Katie Bruzdzinski, stood for five years before the junior etched her name in the record books.
Combined with that mentality and a change in their offense, the Wolverines reversed roles, catching the Longhorns off guard. Texas’s speed and size allowed them to hang on, but led by Erwin’s seven kills, Michigan was able to slowly pull away.
Under the bright lights of the KFC Yum! Center, Erwin shined the brightest of the Wolverines, making all 13,385 fans forget about the All-American hitter on the other side of the court. Texas sophomore Haley Eckerman, who still finished 16 kills, paled in comparison to the Spring, Texas native.
Back-and-forth play highlighted the remainder of the second set, until Michigan scored five of the last seven points, fittingly capped by a kill from Erwin.
“She’s an amazing player and we have nothing but respect for her,” said Texas junior outside hitter Bailey Webster. “Even though every team is going to scout you, there’s great players all over the country. Sometimes they’re going to score their points. They’re being talked about for a reason.”
The Wolverines went into the locker room tied at one set apiece, and carried the momentum back out with them. The Longhorns, try as they might, couldn’t stop Erwin and the Wolverines balanced play in the third set.
Both teams played similarly, rarely letting the other jump out to a lead larger than three points. Erwin once again finished the set with a kill.
“I definitely think the tempo of our offense helped a lot,” Erwin said. “They’re high flyers, big blockers. I think if it wasn’t for the speed of Dannemilleer sets out to the pin, I wouldn’t be having those seems.”
Erwin finished with 26 kills and eight digs on the night, while fifth-year senior right-side hitter Claire McElheny finished with 15 kills in support during her last game as a Wolverine.
Texas, despite struggling to answer back, was prepared for Michgan’s impending momentum swing in the fourth set.
The Longhorns woke back up, finally realizing its season was in the waning moments. Texas angrily attacked the ball and never slowed down to build an early lead.