Huskies have ‘huge advantage’ in NCAA tourney

SEATTLE — Getting to the NCAA Division I Final Four is a special accomplishment for the University of Washington volleyball team.

Making it even more special, this week’s national championship semifinals and final take place in Seattle.

The 30-2 Huskies, seeded third in the tournament and riding a seven-match winning streak, face No. 2 Penn State (32-2) in the second of two semifinals today at KeyArena. The match begins at 6:30 p.m., or around 30 minutes after the conclusion of the other semifinal between defending national champion and top-seeded Texas (27-2) and No. 12 Wisconsin (27-9), which starts at 4:30 p.m.

Today’s winners face off at 6:30 p.m. Saturday for the national championship.

Getting to play in Seattle “is huge,” said UW coach Jim McLaughlin, who is aiming for his second national title with the Huskies. “We don’t have to travel and it’s in front of our fans, so it’s going to be good for our energy and good for our psyche. We’re fired up to have this opportunity and the deal for us now is to make the most of it.”

McLaughlin began his coaching career at Washington in 2001, and after finishing 11-16 that first season he has guided the Huskies to 11 straight NCAA tournament appearances, including the 2005 championship. This season’s team is surely one of his best with Washington. Led by Pacific-12 Conference Player of the Year and likely All-America pick Krista Vansant, the Huskies finished ahead of perennial powers Stanford and USC to win the league title.

“We’ve created an opportunity where we can do something really special,” Vansant said. “I think that when we all click, it could be really special for us.”

“We’re playing well,” McLaughlin said. “There are always things that have to be cleaned up, but it’s like I told the team, ‘We’ve been to the cleaners and now we just have to do a little ironing to get the wrinkles out.’ But the vibe is good. We started tapering about six weeks ago with the volume of jumping, but we’re keeping the intensity high.”

Heading into the final weekend of the season, “you want to be playing the best you can,” he added. “It goes back to your preparation, to fundamentals and to (having) sound mechanics … and I think we’ve got those things in place.”

To reach the Final Four, the Huskies had to pull off a dramatic come-from-behind victory over USC in a quarterfinal match. Playing at the Galen Center in Los Angeles, the Trojans’ home court, Washington shrugged off an 0-2 deficit and saved two match points en route to a 3-2 victory.

It was, said UW senior Kylin Munoz, a 2009 graduate of Monroe High School, “a crazy one. We came out and kind of started slow. We weren’t really clicking, but no one thought it was over after two sets. … During the match we were all saying to each other, ‘We want to play at home. Let’s do this so we can go home and play.’”

Having the chance to close her college career in Seattle “is almost like a fairy tale ending,” Munoz said. “It’s super exciting. And it’s such a big motivational factor, to have so much support from the university and from all our fans and the city in general.

“It’s a huge advantage,” she added, “But we’re definitely thinking of this as just another match. It’s just that the stakes are a little higher.”

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