SAN ANTONIO — First UCLA stopped the greatest championship run in NCAA women's volleyball history. Then the Bruins won a title for themselves.
Twenty years after UCLA's once-dominant program last won a championship, the Bruins are back on top after a four-set victory over up-and-comer Illinois for the school's fourth title Saturday night.
"It feels great to finally bring the program back to what it used to be," said UCLA outside hitter Rachael Kidder, the MVP of the final. "Hopefully, it'll keep going that way in the future."
The Bruins are the sport's first new champion in five years. They dethroned Penn State, whose record run of four consecutive titles ended in the regional semifinals.
Ousting the once-invincible Nittany Lions last week? These very Bruins.
Kidder had 20 kills in the 25-23, 23-25, 26-24, 25-16 victory. The 6-foot-3 junior coolly said afterward she had expected UCLA carry off the championship trophy all season, even though the Bruins hadn't won since 1991 or even played in the final since 1994.
Illinois hadn't even been this far before. Michelle Bartsch had 22 kills in the Illini's first championship match in school history. Even getting to the Alamodome this week was just the third semifinals trip for the program.
"It's been our goal since the beginning of the season to win the national championship," said Illinois outside hitter Colleen Ward, who had 17 kills. "It's obviously tough not to do that, but we're proud of how far we came."
UCLA was among women's volleyball original dynasties in the late 1980s and early 90s but spent the past two decades watching its West Coast rivals pass them by. Now the Bruins are back on top after a 20-year championship drought — an eternity for a program whose 12 national semifinal appearances rank second.
With four championships, UCLA is third behind Stanford (six) and Penn State (five).
Tabi Love added 14 kills for the Bruins.
"It hasn't set in," UCLA coach Michael Sealy said. "I haven't even celebrated the Penn State win yet."
A jubilant UCLA bench rushed onto the court after Sara Sage's match-clinching kill, and their celebration spilled under the net where Illinois players were lining up to shake hands on the other side. Many Illini players wiped away tears while watching UCLA accept their championship trophy.
UCLA squeaked out the first set, then built enough momentum in the second to hint at a possible sweep. A bevy of Illini errors and back-to-back kills by Lauren Van Orden put the Bruins up 20-13 for what the match's biggest lead to that point.
Illinois came roaring back, tying the match on a 12-3 run and then taking UCLA to set point in the third. But Tabi Love snatched back the set for UCLA with consecutive kills, and Illinois never seemed to recover.
"It could have went either way," Ward said of the third set. "They got the points. It was definitely hard to come back in the fourth."
Illinois was trying to become the first school to win a championship in its first finals since Washington in 2005. The Huskies swept perennial contender Nebraska to win the title that year, and the Illini's path wasn't any easier.
They swept the Nittany Lions during the regular season, beat Florida on the Gators' home court in the regional final and upset USC in a thrilling five-set semifinal match Thursday night.
For an Illinois team that lost in the regional semis the previous three seasons, a breakthrough was finally in reach. But the Big Ten power that hadn't lost in seven five-set matches all season couldn't push UCLA past four.