UCLA players enjoy the moment after defeating Illinois, 25-23, 23-25,… (Darren Abate / Associated…)
Reporting from San Antonio — UCLA won its first NCAA women's volleyball title in 20 years on Saturday, defeating Illinois, 25-23, 23-25, 26-24, 25-16.
Junior outside hitter Rachael Kidder's 20 kills and freshman Zoe Nightingale's inspired play at the net made the difference for the Bruins, who have won four women's volleyball NCAA titles overall. Kidder was selected most valuable player of the Final Four; Nightingale, teammate Lauren Van Orden and USC's Alex Jupiter were named to the all-Final Four team.
"Rarely were they able to control her," UCLA Coach Mike Sealy said of Kidder. "She was fantastic."
The victory offered a bit of redemption for the Pac-12 Conference, after Penn State had won the previous four NCAA titles, including championship-match victories against Stanford in 2007 and 2008 and California in 2010. Many Pac-12 coaches were unhappy that UCLA and USC were seeded ninth and seventh, respectively, by the NCAA this postseason.
UCLA navigated a tough route to the Final Four, ending Penn State's four-year postseason undefeated run before knocking off Texas, the tournament's top-seeded team, in the round of eight. The Bruins beat 12th-seeded Florida State handily in the semifinals Thursday.
Illinois seemed to offer the biggest test. Led by powerful senior hitters Colleen Ward and Michelle Bartsch, the Illini are tall and strong. But the Bruins out-served Illinois, and Nightingale had a hand in 11 of UCLA's 15 blocks.
"Sometimes, technically, she's not the most sound blocker," Sealy said of Nightingale, "but it's the aggressive instinct she has. There were some huge blocks in pivotal rallies."
The win gives UCLA 108 NCAA championships in all sports, more than any other school. The Bruins' previous NCAA women's volleyball titles were in 1984, 1990 and '91.