Dec. 11, 2009

Sidebar: The Peak Of The Rainbow

By Michelle Smith
Special to

STANFORD, Calif. - A tough beginning turned into a happy ending for 12th-seeded Hawaii. Down a set and with one of its top players out of the game, Hawaii rallied to earn a spot in the NCAA regional final Friday night at Maples Pavilion, defeating fifth-seeded Illinois, 3-1.

Hawaii, the tournament's No. 12 seed and the winner of 27 straight matches, moves on to face the winner of Friday's late match between fourth-seeded Stanford and No. 13 Michigan.

The Rainbow Wahine (31-2) rallied to win 21-25, 25-10, 27-25, 25-16 after losing the opening set to the Illini, who were making their first back-to-back trip to the regional semifinals since 1989.

Sophomores Kanani Danielson and Stephanie Ferrell led the Hawaii attack after senior middle hitter Amber Kaufman left early in the first set, having aggravated an abdominal strain she's been dealing with for several weeks.

Ferrell set the pace early and finished with a career-high 19 kills, hitting .412 for the match.

Danielson, the team's kill leader and the NCAA leader in kills-per-set in the first weekend of tournament play, finished with 21 kills, 13 digs and four block assists.

Kaufman, an all-conference selection along with Danielson, left after the first set and was replaced in the lineup by sophomore Alexis Forsythe. Forsythe had been practicing with the starters most of the week, according to Wahine coach Dave Shoji because Kaufman was unable to practice.

"This is a huge win for our program," Shoji said. "If you look at the brackets, we are the only non-BCS school left and we are proud of that. We feel like we are representing all the non-BCS schools because there are a lot of good teams out there. We feel like we are as good as anybody in the country."

Hawaii hasn't lost a match since a Sept. 6 contest against Cal in Hawaii.

Illinois (26-6) is now 1-8 all-time against Hawaii.

The match turned in a nip-and-tuck third set. The set had nine ties and Hawaii had game point on a kill by Danielson before falling behind 25-24 on an ace by Illinois' Laura DeBruler. The Wahine responded with a cross-court kill by Danielson to tie the match again at 25-25 and senior Aneli Cubi-Otineru closed the game with two straight kills.

Cubi-Otineru collected the 1,000th kill of her career in the match.

"We knew if they could pass that well, they would be able to run their offense that fast and get us in trouble," Illini coach Kevin Hambly said. "In that third set, we were able to get them out of their system and we were able to score, but we couldn't sustain it."

Hawaii rallied after losing the first set to dominate the second. The Rainbow Wahine grabbed an early 6-0 lead, and pushed to 14-4 on a pair of aces by Cubi-Otineru and a kill by Ferrell. Hawaii had three service aces in the set.

Illinois held off a Hawaii rally to win the first set of the match, 25-21.

The Rainbow Wahine rallied back from an early deficit to tie the match at 17-17, but were outscored 6-1 as Illinois assumed a 23-18 lead.

A pair of kills by Ferrell, who had seven in the set, pulled Hawaii to within 23-21 before the Illini closed it out.

Illinois jumped out to a 6-1 lead in the first set, a run that included a pair of kills by sophomore Michelle Bartch. The quick start forced Hawaii into a time out.

Ferrell led the Wahine back into the match with four kills and Hawaii pulled within 14-11.

Hawaii tied the match at 14-14 on a block by Ferrell and Brittany Hewiit and another solo block by Hewitt gave the Wahine their first lead of the first set at 15-14.