Michigan runs out of magic, falls to Texas in the Sweet Sixteen

Sunday, December 9, 2018 - 4:31pm

Senior libero Jenna Lerg secured the Wolverines' only set victory with an ace.

Senior libero Jenna Lerg secured the Wolverines' only set victory with an ace. Buy this photo
Alec Cohen/Daily

For a moment, it looked like Michigan was going to be embarrassed on the national stage.

Ten points into the match, the Wolverines (24-10 overall, 11-9 Big Ten) didn’t know what hit them. They were on the wrong end of a 10-0 score, and coach Mark Rosen had already burned both of his timeouts while attempting to stop No. 5 Texas’ (23-4, 15-1 Big 12) freight train of an offense. Hitting errors, poor block timing and miscommunications in the back row thrusted Michigan into a deep hole right out of the gate Friday afternoon.

On the other side of the net, the Longhorns’ superior athleticism allowed them to keep the 18th-ranked Wolverines on their heels during the lopsided first frame. Less than twenty minutes after the first serve of the afternoon, Texas went back to its bench with a first-set victory under its belt on Brigham Young’s campus in Provo, Utah — the first of its 25-10, 27-29, 29-27, 25-19 win.

Michigan didn’t panic after a lifeless opening-set effort in its biggest match of the season — rather, it hit the reset button.

“After that first set, it would’ve been easy to fold our tent,” Rosen said. “We knew we had to fight really hard to get back into that match.”

Fighting is nothing new for the Wolverines. Michigan had to fend off three major injuries in October to survive the toughest stretch of its conference slate, rebound from two losses to unranked opponents in one somber November week and battle through a tandem of challenging opponents to reach the Sweet Sixteen. Through it all, the Wolverines remained a staple in the AVCA Coaches Poll and soared as high as No. 12 in RPI.

So, despite being over 1,500 miles from the friendly confines of Cliff Keen Arena, Rosen knew his group wouldn’t cave in after a brutal first set.

“Our team isn’t wowed by anybody or overwhelmed by anybody,” Rosen said. “That comes from playing in the Big Ten because we’ve seen numerous teams this year that are as good as or better than Texas.”

As they’ve done all season, Michigan answered the call. Facing a 23-19 deficit in the second stanza, the Wolverines made their biggest push of the season. Senior outside hitter Carly Skjodt — a unanimous All-Big Ten selection — tied the set with a four-point service run.

From there, freshman outside hitter Paige Jones took the reigns. Jones recorded three crucial kills — the last of which gave Michigan a 27-26 lead — as the pressure mounted, flaunting the poise of a senior during the biggest stretch of her young career.

Moments later, senior libero Jenna Lerg delivered a float serve ace to give the Wolverines a thrilling victory, 29-27.

“After that first set, we faced a pretty demoralizing feeling,” Rosen said. “I thought the entire team did a great job of keeping the energy level high and staying positive. That’s been the culture of this team all year.”

The fight didn’t stop there — Michigan’s dominance carried into the third frame. It seized a 17-12 lead behind another service run from Skjodt, but Texas turned the tables shortly after. The Longhorns’ three-headed offensive monster, spearheaded by Big 12 Player of the Year Micaya White, erased the Wolverines’ lead coming out of a timeout. White tallied a match-high 21 kills, while Big 12 Freshman of the Year Logan Eggleston — who decided to forgo her senior year of high school to enroll at Texas a year early — and senior Yaasmeen Bedart-Ghani combined for 32 kills on just 61 swings.

As the frame crawled into its waning stages, Michigan failed to close out any of its four set points. The Longhorns capitalized — their trio of terminators completed the comeback, 29-27, to take a pivotal lead.

The fourth set followed the same script. Michigan held a 16-13 lead before Texas’ offensive firepower paved the way for a 6-0 Longhorn run, a lethal spurt that buried the Wolverines for good. When the dust settled, Texas took the fourth frame, 25-19, and the match, 3-1.

Despite Herculean efforts from its trio of seniors, the numbers suggest Michigan was simply overpowered by the one of the nation’s most athletic front rows. The Longhorns amassed six more blocks than the Wolverines, while also registering 18 more kills and posting an attack percentage 165 points higher.

In the end, Michigan’s final fight fell just short.

“I was really proud of how our team fought,” Rosen said. “The bottom line is that it comes down to execution and we didn’t execute as well as we needed to tonight.”