UH in WAC title match
|Wahine at WAC tournament photos|
By Ann Miller
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Ann Miller
RENO, Nev. — Smashball beat Smallball last night as 12th-ranked Hawai'i swept into the championship match of the Western Athletic Conference Volleyball Tournament by finally swatting away San Jose State.
The top-seeded Rainbow Wahine (26-5) won their 20th consecutive tournament match, defeating the fifth-seeded Spartans, 30-26, 30-27, 30-24, before a Lawlor Events Center crowd of 824.
In the first semifinal, third-seeded Idaho could not get to 20 against second-seeded — and 21st-ranked — New Mexico State. The Aggies (33-2) ended the Vandals' season, 30-19, 30-19, 30-13, in just 85 minutes.
Jackie Choi had a tournament-record five aces and set NMSU to .352 hitting — 300 points better than Idaho (12-18).
The Aggies and 'Bows play for the title today at 5:30 p.m. (Hawai'i time). The match will be televised on CSTV, which is part of Oceanic Cable's premium sports package.
Hawai'i might have played as well as NMSU last night. SJSU definitely out-played Idaho.
The small-but-sneaky Spartans (19-12) kept popping up on the floor and scoreboard despite being bombarded early and often by the 'Bows, who set the tone immediately and still couldn't make SJSU go away.
Jamie Houston (25 kills) soared over blocks and senior Sarah Mason was again everywhere, with 16 kills, 14 digs and four solo stuffs. Hawai'i middles Juliana Sanders (six roofs) and Kari Gregory (seven) anchored a dominant block. Jayme Lee (21 digs) won the battle of the liberos and All-American setter Kanoe Kamana'o was peerless as always, persistently picking apart the SJSU block.
Still, the Spartans were in every game. The first was tied at 24 and San Jose clawed within 28-26 at the end of Game 2 and 27-24 in Game 3 before the 'Bows could close.
The Spartans' offense was stifled into .093 hitting and their best hitter was 5-foot-8 Niki Clement (18 kills), who kept getting rejected and coming back for more. They also rallied around the WAC's best libero — Jessie Shull — to keep the ball off the floor and frustrate UH.
"Shull is a great player, she's had a great career," UH coach Dave Shoji said of the senior. "I told the team before the match that she's going to dig a lot of balls and we can't get frustrated, we have to keep in the rally.
"You just have to stay focused because they do what they do very well. You could see that tonight. We could never pull away or be comfortable enough. They were always coming at us."
SJSU coach Craig Choate felt his team "played great, as well as we could play." Even at the end of games, when the Spartans' talent deficit was most apparent.
"The problem against the big teams like Hawai'i is we have to play perfect because we're so little," Choate said. "Every time they get a good pass it doesn't matter if they go quick or outside, they're going on top of you. It's really hard to ask anybody to be perfect all night. We played really, really good all night."
That forced Hawai'i to keep the composure that was so evident in Wednesday's opening-round win over Fresno State. Every hitter was a threat last night — Kamana'o even found freshman Amber Kaufman for five second-game kills — and the passing was much improved from last week, as was the focus. Even Clement saw a difference.
"They seemed like they wanted to prove a point," she said. "In Hawai'i they didn't play as well, they seemed slow. Today, they wanted it more than we did."
Houston characterized it as living in the moment.
"Trying to pay attention to what's in front of you instead of what happened in the past," she said. "We just have to go out there and be focused every time because we want to get farther than we did last year."
Hawai'i is going for its ninth consecutive WAC title tonight, against the team that ended its NCAA-record 132-match conference winning streak last month. Shoji believes his team needs to play better than it has here so far.
"They looked awesome tonight," he said of the Aggies. "We'll have to come up with what we think are their strongest points and try to take that away. We can't play straight up and beat them. We have to try and take away what they like to do."
The Aggies' dominance led Idaho coach Debbie Buchanan and Choate to expect a close match tonight, particularly if NMSU's serving and passing trump that of the 'Bows.
"Physically, Hawai'i is the more gifted team, but New Mexico has that unknown magic," Choate said. "They're playing great as a team. They serve probably better than any team I can remember. If they can get Hawai'i in trouble, it makes it a match."
The Aggies and Rainbows split their series this season, with NMSU ending Hawai'i's eight-year WAC winning streak in Las Cruces and the 'Bows blowing by the Aggies on Senior Night in Manoa. New Mexico State missed 19 serves that night.
"Not only did we miss serves," NMSU coach Mike Jordan said, "but it also hurt us in terms of the next person feeling they have to keep the ball in play and end up serving it lame or weak, and they stay in system. You can't do that. Against a team like Hawai'i you have to continue to be aggressive. ... And the crowd did a great job of lifting them emotionally. They got in our head a little bit. Hopefully we learned our lesson."
Bids are due at the beginning of the year for the 2007 WAC Tournament. The conference is also considering if it will begin requiring schools to bid for a two-year commitment, as basketball does. Marilyn Moniz-Kaho'ohanohano, UH's Senior Woman Administrator, said Hawai'i is planning to put in a bid for 2008 but not 2007. The tournament will be a week earlier next year.
Reach Ann Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org.