UCLA, Illinois reach volleyball final

SAN ANTONIO -- UCLA is finally back in the finals. Illinois is just thrilled to get there once.

The Bruins are in the NCAA championship for the first time since 1994 and the Illini are going for the first time in school history after UCLA swept Florida State and Illinois beat USC in five sets in the NCAA semifinals on Thursday night.

Illinois senior Colleen Ward had 27 kills to finish off the Trojans, who lost in semis for the second straight year. They're the latest volleyball power this tournament to fall short of the final, including four-time defending champion Penn State.

Illinois (32-4), on the other hand, hadn't been to the semifinals in 23 years.

"It's surreal. I'm really just taking it in," Illini freshman right side Liz McMahon said. "It's a blast. It's fun with this team and how far we've come."

Michelle Bartsch added 22 kills for Illinois in the 25-27, 25-18, 25-22, 18-25, 15-10 win. Alex Jupiter had 32 kills for USC (29-5), which finally ran out of steam after being pushed to five sets for a third consecutive match.

"We recovered well and out motivation was right there," USC senior outside hitter Alex Jupiter said. "I think that although our bodies were tired and those were hard games, it was more mental."

Jupiter led USC with 32 kills in the final college match for the Pac-12 player of the year.

In the first semifinal, junior outside hitter Rachael Kidder had 21 kills for the Bruins in a sweep over newcomer Florida State, playing in the school's first semifinal match. Tabi Love added 12 kills for the Bruins in the 25-16, 25-17, 25-21 victory.

Seventeen years is a long drought for a program with UCLA's history. The Bruins have three championships, tied for third all-time, and four runner-up finishes. But UCLA, which last won the title in 1991, was making its first semis appearance since 2006.

"It feels great. I think most of us, when we decided to come to UCLA, knew that the program's been really good in the past," Kidder said. "And I know when I came in, I was really looking forward to turning it around hopefully. That was the goal."

The Seminoles (28-7) never led in the first two sets. Jekaterina Stepanova had 11 kills for Florida State.

"It's always a disappointment to lose no matter where you lose," Florida State defensive specialist Katie Mosher said. "But I think the fact that no one expected us to get to the final four at all, it just shows so much for our team as a whole."

There will be a new NCAA champion for the first time since 2006. Four-time defending champion Penn State was eliminated by the Bruins last week.

Kidder picked up where she left off against the Nittany Lions. The 6-foot-3 star of UCLA's front line, who helped finished off Penn State with 15 kills in the regional semis, put together her eighth match this season with at least 20 kills. She hit .462, her best performance of the tournament.

"She has to give herself compliments only if she hits over .500," UCLA coach Michael Sealy said. ".462 in her mind isn't good enough."

Visnja Djurdjevic had eight kills for the Seminoles. Florida State looked nervous at times in a historic debut for the Seminoles, hitting .173.

Florida State was the first ACC team to advance this deep in the tournament. Throw in the Illini, whose last run this far was 1988, and it's made for one of the freshest-looking semifinals in recent years.

But the biggest factor is the absence of Penn State. The Bruins swept the Nittany Lions to end Penn State's record 26-match postseason winning streak and the most dominant run in NCAA women's volleyball history.

The Nittany Lions don't seem missed in the Alamodome. Sealy said it was probably good for the NCAA that a new champion will emerge, and Florida State senior Rachael Morgan spoke both in awe of the Penn State era and with relief to see other teams get a shot.