OMAHA, NE— Courtside seats certainly give a reporter an advantage. There’s downsides, like ESPN’s 30-foot boom camera that came uncomfortably close Thursday, but the upside is hearing comments one can’t from the balcony.
Texas coach Jerritt Elliott doesn’t say much during a match, but during the second set of the Longhorns’ defeat of Minnesota Thursday he turned to an assistant coach.
“We’ve gotta keep trusting Yaazie,” he said.
And with good reason. Yaasmeen Bedart-Ghani played the best match of her freshman season with 15 kills, one error and a .583 hitting percentage in Texas’ 26-24, 25-23, 23-25, and 25-21 win in the national semifinal of the NCAA Women’s Volleyball Tournament.
“The way she played as a freshman, with no nerves, is a tribute to her,” Elliott said.
And she had no nerves despite playing in front of a sold out Century Link Center crowd, and stepping up when middle blocker and team leader Chiaka Ogbogu was in-and-out of the lineup with a cramp in her right thigh (Elliott assured Ogbogu would play in Saturday’s championship).
“She doesn’t need any stroking from the coaching staff to convince her she’s good,” Elliott said.
Bedart-Ghani, who sported a cross tattoo on the back of her neck and tape on every knuckle, came through in the big moments. Her 11th kill stopped a five-point Minnesota run in the third set. Her 14th kill came off a scramble early in the fourth set, and the Texas bench sprang to life. Her third block assist put Texas ahead, 16-15, in the fourth, and she immediately followed with her 15th kill. That two-point spree started an 8-3 run that proved decisive.
Bedart-Ghani hadn’t earned much trust early in the season. She didn’t play in nine of Texas’ first 16 matches, and wasn’t even the top freshman on her own team before the season; that honor went to Micaya White, the Big 12 Preseason Freshman of the Year. White, though, missed the entire season with a broken leg bone.
“When we lost her, we made a concerted effort to get [Bedart-Ghani] to the right,” Elliott said. “Early in the season, I think she was swinging as hard as she could. Now she’s started to get some range.”
Even at season’s end, Bedart-Ghani wasn’t a fixture in the Longhorns’ offense, recording three kills on eight swings in the regular season finale against Oklahoma. She was even worse in the NCAA Tournament’s first round, with two kills and a zero hitting percentage against Fairfield. Then something happened. She had a then-season-high nine kills in the second round against Purdue, the beginning of a four-match run where she’s been one of the best players on the court.
“I’m really happy for her,” Texas setter Chloe Collins said. “We got those reps in practice, even though Yaazie wasn’t playing in matches early in the season. That chemistry’s always been there.”
It was the type of performance she couldn’t have imagined as a kid. Bedart-Ghani’s father and two brothers played basketball, while she was a Jill of all trades.
“I was one of those kids that couldn’t find a sport,” she said. “I tried soccer, swimming, basketball, cheerleading, dancing, all of it.”
But when she was 12, a friend of her mother made an obvious observation.
“She said, ‘Hey, you’re tall, you should try volleyball.’ I think that’s the story for a lot of kids,” Bedhart-Ghani said.
Bedart-Ghani grew up in Los Angeles and strongly considered UCLA (“It’s right across the street from my high school,” she said) but decided she wanted to get out of California. She never second guessed the decision – leaving home, or choosing volleyball.
“I found my spot,” she said.
Up Next: Texas (30-2) will play for its third national championship Saturday. Its celebration was short-lived, Thursday. Before the Texas pep band could complete the postgame tradition of playing “The Eyes of Texas”, the sellout crowd at the Century Link Center erupted in cheers as the (in essence) home team Nebraska Cornhuskers took the court.
Heading Home Minnesota, champions of the Big Ten, finished the season 30-5. Minnesota hit. 271 – with 21 kills coming form All-American Daly Santana – but Texas hit .296.
“I think they were hitting really, really well out of system and I think that our plan was to knock them out of system a lot and obviously that wasn't working as well as we thought,” Santana said.
The Gophers were in the Final Four for the fourth time, all since 2003.
“Sad that it's come to an end. It's a great group and it's been a great journey,” coach Hugh McCutcheon said.