It was a nice way to end. Freshman Audriana Fitzmorris nailed two consecutive kills to finalize Stanford's 26-24, 25-19, 22-25, 25-22 victory over Minnesota in the NCAA national semifinals Thursday at Ohio State.
The Cardinal (26-7) plays for the NCAA championship at 6 p.m. Saturday on ESPN2 against No. 4 Texas, which swept No. 1 Nebraska.
Stanford reaches the championship match for the 15th time in school history. Last year, the Cardinal were upset, at home, in the second round
Senior Kelsey Humphreys entered the game to serve for match point and freshman Jenna Gray set the winner.
Stanford has forged experience and raw talent into one of the top teams in the nation.
Three-time first team All-American Inky Ajanaku, who had 15 kills, nine blocks and hit .323 in the match, is arguably playing the best volleyball of her career.
"I do feel like I've gotten more confident throughtout the season," Ajanaku said. "I'm happy I'm peaking and the team is peaking at the right time."
Gray, Fitzmorris, Morgan Hentz and Kathryn Plummer, four of the most polished freshmen in the nation, have bonded with Ajanaku in a way impossible to define but easy to see.
Ajanaku's infectious personality, which seems never to have a bad day, has brought the Cardinal together.
"We have Inky's spirit right now and I think that really matters," Stanford coach John Dunning said. "She's playing really tough right now and being an example and a leader for everyone."
Freshman libero Morgan Hentz, who has 84 digs in her last three matches, played a phenomenal match, getting to balls she had no right to come close to getting.
"The libero position is often overlooked but she is doing some acrobatic stuff in the back," Ajanaku said. "It's easy to be a great blocker if you only have to take up a certain part of the court and Morgan allows that for us."
Humphreys, Plummer and Fitzmorris were all invaluable on defense.
"It was not about offense. it was way more about defense," said Minnesota coach Hugh McCutcheon, who led Team USA to a men's volleyball Olympic gold medal in 2008 and got the women's volleyball team to the gold-medal match in 2012. "I thought we hit good shots and they were able to defend them well. Their backcourt was very clean. It's a scrappy, disciplined bunch."
There were 11 lead changes and 30 ties through the match. Stanford held the biggest lead of the match at 17-12 in the fourth set and Minnesota eventually tied it at 21 before the Cardinal seized the momentum for good.
"There were moments our energy was off a little but we fought back," Gopher senior Sarah Wilhite said. "I think it was two good teams going to battle. They blocked well, they played tough and it was hard to hit against them."
Plummer, the national Freshman of the Year, had 15 kills and 11 digs. Fitzmorris added 10 kills and eight blocks.
Gray recorded 49 assists, 12 digs and hit .625 (5-0-8).
"I've played with a lot of great players," Ajanaku said. "Every experience with this Stanford jersey on is incredible. The talent on this team and the heart I see in their eyes ... I've only seen a handful of times."