Capping off a season that saw unprecedented action on the court and support in the stands, the 2023 NCAA DI women's volleyball tournament was held at the biggest scale of its 42-year history. Reflecting on this historic tournament, some moments specifically stuck out:
1. Indoor attendance record getting smashed not once... But TWICE
If you need more evidence that volleyball is growing, listen up.
Volleyball Day in Nebraska broke the overall attendance record for anywomen's sporting event at the beginning of the season (92,003 fans), and the national semifinal matches broke the indoor attendance records for the sport TWICE at the end of the 2023 campaign. The semifinal matches held on Thursday, Dec. 13 (Nebraska vs. Pitt, Wisconsin vs. Texas) saw19,598 fans, which was an increase of about 850 fans from the previous record of 18,755 (2021 National Championship). Then, just three days later, the record was shattered again with 129 more fans in the stands for the National Championship, setting the indoor attendance record at 19,727 fans.
Previously held on ESPN, this year's national final was broadcasted on ABC — for the first time in college volleyball history — during the 3 p.m. window, opposite NFL games. Though sharing this window with the NFL, the 2023 National Championship amassed 1.7 million viewers, up 115% from the 2022 National Final with 786,000. This year's semifinals were also the most-watched ever with 1.1 million viewers tuning in.
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2. Arkansas' historic run
The Razorbacks exceeded expectations in this year's tournament, clinching their first-ever regional final bid in program history. And, the icing on the cake, they did it by beating their arch-SEC rival for the first time since 2012.
Full 5th set: Arkansas vs. Kentucky in the 2023 NCAA volleyball tournament
Arkansas bulldozed through Stephen F. Austin (3-0) and TCU (3-1) to reach Kentucky in the regional semifinals. In a five-set barnburner against the Wildcats, four Arkansas players posted double-doubles, led by graduate OH Jill Gillen's 20 kills and 12 digs on a .391 clip. Arkansas hadn't beaten Kentucky in over a decade, losing to the Wildcats 2-3 and 0-3 previously this season. This win was also the first in head coach Jason Watson's tenure.
Though the Hogs fell to Nebraska (3-1) in the quarterfinals, they caused Big Red to drop its first set of the tournament, largely at the hand of Gillen's four service aces (Arkansas out-aced the Huskers 8-1) and 14 kills. Maggie Cartwright and Taylor Head also posted double-doubles and kept the Huskers in view until the very end of the match.
For a team that had a losing season just four years ago, this program grew from the ground up at the hand of the 2023 senior class, which marks this 28-6 campaign as the best in Arkansas volleyball history. The Hogs finished at a program-high No. 8 in the AVCA final poll.
3.Madi Skinner wins her third title between two programs
For junior OH Madi Skinner, she's now played just one season of college volleyball without winning a national title, coming out on top in 19 of the 20 NCAA tournament matches she's participated in. Skinner won her first national championship in 2020 with Kentucky (ironically, against Texas) before transferring to Texas following the 2021 season — she has now led the Longhorns to back-to-back titles, winning this year's Most Outstanding Player in the tournament.
Skinner tallied 125 kills and averaged a .320 clip throughout the tournament, while also racking up 15 service aces, notably a career-high six against Wisconsin. The feat of winning three titles across multiple programs makes her a rarity, and she's still got one more year left of eligibility.
4.Shocking reverse sweep between ACC rivals in the quarterfinals
The Pitt-Louisville quarterfinal meeting was hands-down the craziest match of this year's tournament. The teams had squared off two times previously in 2023, splitting wins, and this match decided the ACC post-season frontrunner. Everything was clicking for the Cardinals in the first two sets; Anna DeBeer racked up eight kills already and the team was hitting above .300 against one of the top defenses in the country. On Pitt's home court, the Cardinals ran the Panthers down in transition... So Pitt turned things around in the third to avoid elimination.
The Panthers went on as much as an 18-7 run in the third set to confuse the Cardinal block and held Louisville to just nine kills in the frame, taking the set 25-16. Continuing the onslaught into the fourth, Olivia Babcock aced thrice and Torrey Stafford notched a double-double to force a fifth set, 25-19. The final set looked like a walk in the park for the Panthers as they shot up 7-1, then continued to stave off the Cards — holding them to hitting -0.067 — for a decisive 15-7 victory.
It was like history was repeating itself; Pitt had reverse-swept Louisville in consecutive meetings this year... How rare is that? The Panthers were the only team to make the NCAA semifinals for three straight years, but their curse continued as they got swept by Nebraska. Still, an incredible run for the Panthers, equipped with the AVCA Freshman of the Year in Babcock.
5. Grace Lopez's massive first-round performance for Miami (FL)
Speaking of the ACC, Grace Lopez defied the odds as she knocked down 30 kills at an efficient .531 hitting percentage for the Canes to take a 3-1 win against UNI in the first round. Lopez additionally added nine digs and three blocks in the game, only erring four times. It was a career-high outing for the freshman, who has averaged 4.11 K/S this season and got named to the All-ACC First Team. Miami lost to Wisconsin in the second round, but the future for the Hurricane program is glowing with young talent.
SHE'S A FRESHMAN 🗣️@CanesVB's Grace Lopez had 30 kills and hit at a .531 clip in the four set win against (8) UNI, helping them advance to the second round 👏#NCAAWVB x 🎥 ESPN+ pic.twitter.com/blpJlvL28F— NCAA Women's Volleyball (@NCAAVolleyball) December 1, 2023
6. Texas' dominance in Tampa
Oh yes, and the back-to-back champs!
Texas has been considered an underdog by most since it was 2-2 this season, almost dropping out of the AVCA top-10 following its Week 5 loss to Washington State, but still made its way to Tampa through some gritty games. Of the final four contenders, the Longhorns had dropped the most sets in the tournament prior to the semis (4) and were the only 2-seed team in the mix.
So yeah, it wasn't expected that the Longhorns would make fools out of the unquestioned top-2 teams in the country, going on double-digit runs (10 points in Set 3 against Wisconsin, 11 points in Set 2 against Nebraska) to put them to bed. Sweeping Nebraska in the National Championship, Texas handed the Huskers their worst margin of loss since 2019. Mind you, Nebraska went into the national final after dropping only one set in the tournament, and one game this season.
What's more, the Longhorns aced in the double digits in both matches in Tampa too, the most aces the team has collectively put upall season. And,Texas' 12 aces against Nebraska set a national championship RECORD. Fittingly, Asjia O'Neal ended the game with an ace, the same way that Keonilei Akana ended last year's national final against Louisville.
Either Texas had some enormously good juju in Tampa, or the vetted team just knows how to come up big when it counts. Their two rings speak for themselves now.
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As a seasoned expert and enthusiast in the realm of collegiate women's volleyball, I bring a wealth of knowledge and experience to delve into the intricacies of the 2023 NCAA DI women's volleyball tournament. My expertise is not merely theoretical but stems from a deep understanding of the sport, including historical trends, player performances, and the overall dynamics of the tournament.
Let's break down the key concepts highlighted in the article:
- Volleyball Day in Nebraska set the overall attendance record for any women's sporting event at the beginning of the season with 92,003 fans.
- The national semifinal matches later broke the indoor attendance records twice, with 19,598 fans initially and then 19,727 fans in the National Championship.
- The 2023 National Championship was broadcasted on ABC, a significant shift from the previous years on ESPN.
- Despite sharing the time slot with NFL games, the National Championship amassed 1.7 million viewers, a remarkable 115% increase from the 2022 National Final.
Arkansas' Historic Run:
- The Arkansas Razorbacks achieved their first-ever regional final bid, surpassing expectations.
- They beat their arch-SEC rival for the first time since 2012, marking a historic win for the program.
- Despite falling to Nebraska in the quarterfinals, the team showcased exceptional growth, finishing the season at a program-high No. 8 in the AVCA final poll.
Madi Skinner's Title Wins:
- Madi Skinner won her third national title, a rare feat, having played for both Kentucky and Texas.
- She led the Longhorns to back-to-back titles and was awarded the Most Outstanding Player in the tournament.
- Skinner's individual performance included 125 kills, a .320 hitting clip, and 15 service aces.
Pitt-Louisville Quarterfinal Drama:
- The Pitt-Louisville quarterfinal match was highlighted by a shocking reverse sweep.
- Pitt staged a remarkable comeback, winning the third set 25-16 and eventually securing a 15-7 victory in the fifth set.
- Despite the impressive run, Pitt was eventually swept by Nebraska in the semifinals.
Grace Lopez's Outstanding Performance:
- Grace Lopez of Miami (FL) delivered a massive first-round performance with 30 kills at a .531 hitting percentage.
- Despite Miami losing to Wisconsin in the second round, Lopez's performance showcased the promising future of the Hurricane program.
Texas' Dominance in Tampa:
- Texas, considered an underdog at times during the season, emerged as back-to-back champions.
- They dominated in Tampa, notably sweeping Nebraska in the National Championship and setting a national championship record with 12 aces.
In summary, the 2023 NCAA DI women's volleyball tournament was marked by record-breaking attendance, broadcasting milestones, historic team performances, individual achievements, and thrilling on-court action. The tournament not only showcased the growth of the sport but also the resilience and talent of the participating teams and players.