I was just praying watching that rally, ‘Set Jen. Set Jen. Set her again. And if it would have gone another one I would have said, ‘Set her again.’ I knew that kid was going to do something. —BYU coach Shawn Olmstead, on the game-winning play
OKLAHOMA CITY — BYU coach Shawn Olmstead likes just about all his hitting options during critical moments. But toward the end of a hotly contested fourth set in Thursday’s NCAA semifinal match against No. 2-seeded Texas, he had one particular option in mind: Jen Hamson.
His wish was granted.
With BYU leading 25-24 in the set, the 6-foot-7 senior received a well-placed set and sent a screaming hit cross court that glanced off a helpless Longhorn defender and ricocheted into the crowd to win the match. With the four sets (25-23, 25-16, 17-25, 26-24) the Cougars advance to the NCAA championship game.
“I was just praying watching that rally, ‘Set Jen. Set Jen. Set her again,’ ” Olmstead said. “And if it would have gone another one I would have said, ‘Set her again.’ I knew that kid was going to do something.”
So what was Hamson’s game plan on the match’s most critical swing?
“Honestly, swing high because I kind of got blocked the first time,” Hamson said of her mindset. “I just went a little bit higher and caught (the Texas defender’s) hands.”
The fact Hamson responded during the team’s most critical moment to date shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has followed her singular two-sport career at BYU.
“She did it against Florida State just like that — with a big, high swing that went off the block,” Olmstead said referring to Hamson’s match-winning point against the Seminoles in the NCAA round of 16.
Overall Hamson finished with a game-high 22 kills and seven blocks, but as is the norm, she had a lot of help. Alexa Gray, in maybe her best match to date, finished with 19 kills on a stellar .421 hitting percentage while also coming through in big moments.
“I’m not surprised at all that she did that. She’s outstanding,” Olmstead said of Gray’s performance.
Hamson, Gray and everyone else were in prime form throughout most of the first two sets.
After falling behind 15-12 midway through the first set, the Cougars rallied to take control. Three straight points from Gray pushed BYU ahead 19-18 before Hamson finished things off — scoring the final three points of the set to take it 25-23.
The second set was all BYU.
With things tied at 9-9 early, the Cougars went on a 10-2 run to lead 19-11 before cruising to take the set 25-16. This time it was Gray closing things out with yet another well-placed kill.
With almost all of the momentum going into the break, BYU appeared poised for a straight set victory until things bogged down considerably in the third set.
Things went back and forth until the Longhorns scored the sets’ final eight points to take a convincing 25-17 set win. Key to taking the third set was finding a way to get around BYU’s No. 1-ranked block, which finished with zero blocks in the third set after recording 11 through two sets.
“(Texas was) taking better swings,” Olmstead said. “I think they were trying to be aggressive, thinking maybe they could move the ball around a little more. Our serving let off a little I think that was the biggest factor.”
Both teams seemed to step up their play in the fourth set.
Things went back-and-forth leading up to Hamson’s heroics. Just prior to the All-American’s match-winning point came some controversy that saw Texas coach Jerritt Elliot storm the court in protest.
With the set tied at 24-24, Hamson sent over an attempt that went out of bounds. The initial ruling was point for Texas before the down official overruled the chair — determining Texas touched Hamson’s attempt.
“I’ll be completely honest, I couldn’t see anything,” Olmstead said of the controversial call. But I believe these refs are doing a darn good job and really, really focusing on making the right calls.”
Texas was led on the night by Chiaka Ogbogu and her team-high 14 kills. Haley Eckerman and Kat Bell added nine kills apiece.
With the win, BYU advances to the NCAA championship game, where it will face No. 5-seeded Penn State. The game will take place Saturday, Dec. 20, at 5:30 MST and will be televised live on ESPN2.
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