Alix Klineman, Cassidy Lichtman and Gabi Ailes, as usual, left everything they had on the court Saturday. The seniors led the second-ranked Stanford women's volleyball team to the brink of its third Final Four appearance in four years.
USC, though, has its own set of seniors who were looking to reach the Final Four, and by the slimmest of margins, the Women of Troy advanced with an epic 20-25, 25-17, 22-25, 26-24, 16-14 victory over the Cardinal in Dayton, Ohio.
Stanford (27-4) even had a chance at match point, leading 14-13 after Jessica Walker recorded her career-best 12th kill of the match. But an attack error gave USC an opening and that made all the difference.
There were seven ties and three lead changes in the deciding set, which was likely decided by five Stanford serve or attack errors.
"As you can imagine this is no fun," Stanford coach John Dunning said. "I am very proud of our team. We showed a lot of courage. This is a hard part of the season for all of us as we finish up and separate."
Klineman and Lichtman were named to the all-Regional team along with MVP Falyn Fohoimoanal of USC and her teammates Kendall Bateman and Alex Jupiter.
The Cardinal beat USC twice during the Pac-10 season and finished just ahead of the Women of Troy in the conference standings. In the latest example of parity, though, another of the top seeds fell.
"Honestly, we changed everything this morning," USC coach Mick Haley said. "We came to practice at 9 a.m. and came with the game plan. We were ready to play at 9 a.m. this morning because we were bouncing balls in practice and the other team didn't even come to practice. That was interesting. We had to change something because all the stuff that hadn't worked. We are really happy that we guessed right."
USC will meet the winner of a later game between California and Washington in Kansas City on Thursday in one of the national semifinals.
The Women of Troy became the first to qualify for a spot in the Final Four. They will meet California, who downed Washington.
Three-time defending champion Penn State and Texas will meet in the other semifinal.
Klineman, the second most prolific scorer in Stanford history, had 28 kills and 10 digs. Lichtman, perhaps the most versatile player in school history, added nine kills, 30 assists and 13 digs. Ailes, the Cardinal career leader in digs, finished with 25 on the day. Ailes also had three aces.
"Stanford is an amazing team, Alix Klineman is an amazing player; she has all the shots," Bateman said. "It's hard to play defense because you don't know where she's going
Karissa Cook added 28 assists and 11 digs and Hannah Benjamin added 11 digs. Walker hit .750 for the match. Carly Wopat added nine kills and a .471 hitting percentage.
"Every time we play USC they change their defense every other play," Klineman said. "It's not something that is new to us. They did a really good job, it came down to a few other things than if they stopped me or not. They just did a great job out there."
USC held on through a competitive fourth set in which the lead changed hands four times and there were 11 ties. The Cardinal fell behind 9-5 before rallying and taking a 14-13 advantage. The Women of Troy regained the lead and never trailed again, out-hitting Stanford, .286-.220.
Stanford's versatility was in full swing during the first set, in which the Cardinal hit .306. The score was tied at 14 when Hayley Spelman recorded a kill, Karissa Cook followed with an ace, Klineman had a kill and Jessica Walker recorded a block to put Stanford in control of the set. Carly Wopat's kill finished it off.
The second set belonged to USC, which out-hit the Cardinal .464 to .188. The Women of Troy began to pull away after Stanford drew within 13-11, taking advantage of several mistakes from the Cardinal side of the net.
Klineman had eight kills in the third set as both Stanford and USC players played near the top of their game. The Women of Troy hit .366 while the Cardinal hit .341. The margin of error was slim, with USC making just a couple of more mistakes.