MINNEAPOLIS -- It came down to one set, first to 15, for the NCAA women's volleyball national title. Stanford and Nebraska stared down each other at the Target Center Saturday night and forced a fifth set for just the 10th time in the sport's finale. Who would break? Who could breathe?
One final gasp fueled Stanford to its second NCAA title in three years in an exhilarating spectacle. Stanford gutted out a dramatic fifth set 15-12, punctuated by a Meghan McClure back-row kill on match point.
Even then, the three-hour match wasn't quite over. Nebraska coach John Cook challenged that McClure was over the line when she attacked. The sophomore spilled tears, initially to celebrate the title, and in a matter of seconds, fearing the worst.
"I turned to everyone and said, 'I didn't foot-fault, right?' I didn't think I did, and they were like, 'No, you're good.'" said McClure, whose seventh and final kill of the match is sure to become a highlight reel in her family's Santa Margarita, California, home. "And then I was like, 'Please, please, please ... let this stand.' And then it did. It was such a fun way to win the match."
And finally Stanford was able to celebrate a magical season in which the Cardinal started it at No. 1 and ended it leaving no doubt.
"I was excited that she took a rip on it, especially in that big of a moment," Stanford coach Kevin Hambly said. "It was a very special swing."
It had been a miserable fourth set for the Cardinal, who hit .121 while losing it 25-15. Kathryn Plummer had just one kill in that set, unable to find her rhythm after receiving serve 13 times.
"In that fourth set, Nebraska came out swinging hard. They got us out of system with their serve, and we weren't able to get in rhythm," said Cardinal libero Morgan Hentz, sensational in digging a career-best 32 balls, which earned her co-most outstanding player honors with Plummer. "Going into the fifth set, we said, 'We've got to lay it out there. Give it everything we have.' And I think it took us a while to get there. Nebraska kept coming back. They put up an amazing fight."
The Cardinal trailed 0-2 and 1-3 after Nebraska senior Mikaela Foecke recorded her second kill in the final set, energizing the already frenzied crowd of largely Nebraska fans who made Target Center reminiscent of Bob Devaney Sports Center back in Lincoln throughout the evening.
The teams were tied four times in the final set, that last one at 9-9 behind a Lexi Sun kill. The place roared again but quieted quickly when Stanford recorded back-to-back kills from Holly Campbell and Plummer.
Capri Davis brought Nebraska within one, but Campbell came up big again on a career night for the freshman. The middle blocker finished with 15 kills, none bigger than her hammer for 12-10.
Then, Jenna Gray caught the Huskers off guard with a dump for 13-10, and Sidney Wilson hit a serve that appeared to be wide. Only Hambly challenged, and the call was reversed, setting up the first match point.
Of course, Foecke had an answer. She did all night. The Husker twice received the most outstanding player award at the final four, and certainly a Nebraska victory would earn her that accolade again.
She smacked her 27th kill to make it 14-11.
Then, a net violation on Stanford made it 14-12. Would the Huskers, who had rallied from two sets down to stun Illinois in the national semifinal, have one more rally left?
Hambly called a timeout.
"Take a deep breath," he reminded the Cardinal. "'We work on this all the time. You've got to put the ball away. Here's a play. Let's execute."
McClure's kill, the final play of the 2018 season, put Stanford in the record book alone. No other program has won eight national titles.
Even though the outcome wasn't what Cook wanted, he called it "a great night for volleyball. Two of the most storied programs in volleyball had a great match."