Tuesday, 20 February 2024

International Volleyball

Winning NCAA title “like an out-of-body experience” for Asjia O’Neal

Winning NCAA title “like an out-of-body experience" for Asjia O'Neal

Asjia O’Neal celebrates winning the NCAA title/@AndyWenstrand

By Joey Johnston for VolleyballMag.com

TAMPA — On match point, as she prepared for the potentially clinching serve, Texas middle blocker Asjia O’Neal said she had one thought.

“I said to myself, ‘I’m going to get an ace and we’re going to win it right here,’ ‘’ O’Neal said. “Then it all happened in front of me. I think I saw it, then closed my eyes.’’

O’Neal’s resounding ace deflected off the outstretched arms of Nebraska’s Harper Murray, giving the Longhorns a stunning (and stunningly efficient) 25-22, 25-14, 25-11 victory  in Sunday’s NCAA championship match before a record 19,727 fans at Amalie Arena.

After her season-high fifth ace, O’Neal slowly sunk to the ground, almost in disbelief, before rushing to join her jubilant teammates.

“Like an out-of-body experience,’’ O’Neal said.

The entire season was like that for O’Neal, who said she was “90-10’’ on leaving college to turn professional after the Longhorns had captured the 2022 national title. But the joyous camaraderie of the Longhorn team pulled her back for a sixth season.

And that didn’t turn out so well in the beginning of this season. The Longhorns (28-4) stumbled to a 5-3 start before righting the ship. They were nearly eliminated in the region semifinals, facing a fourth-set match point against Tennessee, before somehow pulling it out in five.

After that — Boom! Boom! Boom! — it was consecutive victories against three No. 1 seeds, Stanford, Wisconsin and Nebraska. It’s not often that a defending national champion plays pressure-free while being painted as an underdog, but that’s what happened for O’Neal’s Longhorns.

“There was no pressure on us,’’ O’Neal said. “The pressure was on all the other teams. We were able to play free. We love each other and support each other always. Throughout the whole year, it was just so fun.

“This is probably the most joyous season I’ve ever had in my life. It was definitely challenging at times. But today was an example. Everyone played free. Everyone had confidence in one another. And we were able to go out and take down some really incredible teams.’’

O’Neal helped pace the Texas service game, which produced a season-high 12 aces.

“They had a level of serving we hadn’t seen all year,’’ Nebraska coach John Cook said. “I thought we did a pretty good job…

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