SAN ANTONIO, Texas – Outside hitter Rachael Kidder had 20 kills and UCLA beat Illinois in the NCAA women’s volleyball championship to give the Bruins their first title in two decades Saturday night.
The Bruins won their fourth title in school history, putting them third behind Stanford (six) and Penn State (five).
Tabi Love had 14 kills for UCLA in the 25-23, 23-25, 26-24, 25-16 victory. Michelle Bartsch led Illinois with 22 kills in the first championship match in history for the Illini.
UCLA (30-6) hadn’t won a championship since 1991 or even played in the final since 1994.
The Bruins are the sport’s first new champion in five years. They dethroned the Nittany Lions, whose record run of four consecutive titles ended in the regional semifinals.
Ousting once-invincible Penn State last week? These very Bruins.
UCLA was among women’s volleyball original dynasties in the late 1980s and early 90s, but the program spent the past two decades watching its rivals pass them by. Now the Bruins are back on top after a 20-year championship drought — an eternity for a program whose 12 national semifinal appearances rank second.
Newcomer Illinois fell in just the Illini’s third trip to the semifinals in school history. Colleen Ward added 17 kills for the Illini (32-5).
A jubilant UCLA bench spilled onto the court after Sara Sage’s match-clinching kill, carrying their celebration under the net where Illinois players were lining up waiting to shake hands. Many Illini players wiped away tears while watching UCLA accept their championship trophy.
UCLA squeaked out the first set, then built enough momentum in the second to hint at a possible sweep. A bevy of Illini errors and back-to-back kills by Lauren Van Orden put the Bruins up 20-13 for what the match’s biggest lead to that point.
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Illinois came roaring back, tying the match on a 12-3 run and then taking UCLA to set point in the third. But Tabi Love snatched back the set for UCLA with consecutive kills, and Illinois never seemed to recover.
Illinois was trying to become the first newcomer to win a championship in its first try since Washington in 2005. The Huskies swept perennial contender Nebraska to win the title that year, and the Illini’s path wasn’t any easier.
They swept the Nittany Lions during the regular season, beat Florida on the Gators’ home court in the regional final and upset USC in a thrilling five-set semifinal match Thursday night.
For an Illinois team that lost in the regional semis the previous three seasons, a breakthrough was finally in reach. But the Big Ten power that hadn’t lost in seven five-set matches all season couldn’t push UCLA past four.