By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE – Sure, it may come across like worrying about a Ferrari having a smudged exhaust pipe. Or a 4.0 student missing a single answer on a pop quiz.
But can the Huskies, the Pac-12 champions for the first time since their national-title season of 2005 and winners 28 times in 30 matches entering this weekend’s round of 16 in the NCAA tournament, win four more matches for a second national championship in school history with the incomparable Krista Vansant carrying too much of the offense?
“Yeah, she can,” Washington coach Jim McLaughlin said, turning to Vansant sitting to his right Saturday night.
That was after the conference’s player of the year almost singlehandedly spiked LSU out of the NCAA tournament at Alaska Airlines Arena with 24 kills – twice more than any teammate.
“But we have to have everybody firing. That’s when you are most effective. But I will put her up against anybody,” UW’s veteran coach said. “And she likes that.”
Vansant bashfully smiled at that.
The tenacious, driven junior not only enjoys being the one her teammates find when they really need a point, she revels and thrives in her dominant place on an at-times dominant unit.
“I just feel like that’s my role on the team,” she says, with a shrug.
“I just want to take good swings in good situations. That’s what I want to do as a teammate, for my team.”
Vansant’s 24 kills – 43 percent of the team’s total of 56 -- in Saturday’s four-set win were her second most this season, behind the 28 she had in UW’s taut win at California last month. The junior’s career high is 31 from last season against UCLA.
She’s been at her most dominant in Washington’s biggest matches. She had 33 percent of the Huskies’ kills in a four-set win at No. 14 Illinois in September, then 35 percent of them in the four-set win at No. 21 Oregon, a national finalist last season. Vansant soared for 37 percent of UW’s kills in the five-set victory over No. 7 Stanford, then 41 percent of them in the win over fourth-ranked USC at home last month.
But for the Huskies (28-2), seeded third nationally, to go as far as they expect to in this NCAA tournament – through Friday’s round-of-16 match at 5 p.m. against 14th-seeded Kansas (25-7) in Los Angeles, through Saturday night’s regional finals against either unseeded Brigham Young or sixth-seeded USC for a spot in next week’s Final Four at KeyArena in Seattle – they need a Bravo or Charlie to emerge as alternate attack options behind UW’s undisputed Alpha Dawg.
All-Pac-12 Kaleigh Nelson is the most obvious second option who could keep opponents from stacking blocks against Vansant in crunch times.
McLaughlin nods his head in agreement with that.
“Sure,” the veteran coach said after Washington lost the first set at home Saturday night against LSU – then roared back to win the next three sets and the match to reach this weekend’s regional at USC’s Galen Center.
“You know, there are many ebbs and flows on the thing,” McLaughlin said. “Kaleigh was not good early, but we hung with her. And she knows she can be good – and she was very good late.
“And then Li (Lianna Sybeldon) put some balls away. And Cassie (Strickland) did a nice job.
“We tend to be pretty good at the end of games. I am going to push them and talk about being good early and not getting behind.”
Vansant has led or shared the team lead in kills 24 times in 30 matches this season. Nelson is second on the team, leading or sharing the lead in seven matches. Both hitters were named to the All-Pacific North Region Team on Tuesday.
It’s not like Nelson’s been sleeping through matches lately. The 6-foot junior from Salem, Ore., has 20 kills through UW’s first two NCAA tournament games, just above her average of 3.1 kills per set this season.
But LSU won the first set Saturday and startled the Huskies a bit while Nelson struggled with her hitting early. As McLaughlin said, the Huskies stuck with her, and Nelson ended up with 12 kills, half of Vansant’s total, as UW won the next three games and the match. In the final set, Nelson had five kills (to Vansant's six) and hit .400.
But, of course, the competition stiffens with each round. If they get past Kansas in the first-ever match between Huskies and Jayhawks Friday, the Dawgs could get USC (28-5) on its home floor Saturday. The Huskies beat the Trojans twice this season in four sets each time, but it took Vansant making 36 percent of her team’s kills in those matches to win over a conference rival that has spent much of this season ranked with UW among the nation’s top five.
“I think we need a match like this, I really do. They aren’t fun to go through,” McLaughlin said after rallying past LSU.
“But to have that adversity and to respond to it, you have to have those experiences. That’s how you grow. When you are forced to tap out emotionally it’s really tough, and you grow as a player, you grow as a team. You need those experiences, especially in the tournament.
“The last time we went to LA we won two,” he said of the wins over UCLA and USC on the last weekend of October.
“We plan on going to LA here and winning two.”