For the eleventh straight time (and the 26th time under head coach Russ Rose), the Nittany Lion women's volleyball team is headed into the regional semi finals of the NCAA tournament this week after a pair of wins at home in Rec Hall.
The Northeast Regionals
On Friday, in Rec Hall and live on BTN2Go, the Lions upended a surprisingly tough LIU-Brooklyn Squad who, despite only having three players over 6'0" tall, led PSU at points in all three sets before being overwhelmed in the end, 25-21, 25-21, 25-14. The Lions came out flat in their first round, clearly expecting to intimidate, out-muscle, and just generally overwhelm an inferior opponent, and the blackbirds had none of it that night--they looked like they expected to go toe to toe with the #2 squad in the nation, and they did, until they didn't (the match saw 8 lead changes, and 20 tie scores).
Rose clearly gave the team a what-for at the intermission, as the ladies came out after the break and took solid control of the third set, their best of the night by far. PSU hit .280 on the night, led by seniors Katie Slay (.412) and Ariel Scott (.348). Juniors Micha Hancock added four aces on the night, and the team notched 14 total blocks.
The second round was a much different story, against what was, on paper, a superior opponent. The PAC 12 got nine teams into the NCAA tournament; State's opponent on Saturday, Utah, was one of six to not make it into the second weekend.
The good guys came out on fire on Saturday, motivated from the first serve and winning handily, 25-14, 25-15, 25-11. Sophomore Megan Courtney was the star of the night, hitting an insane .556 on the day. The team's leading three seniors, Deja McClendon, Scott and Slay, all had excellent nights, with McClendon having the most digs on the team (16)--a great stat to see for a player who used to get pulled when her rotation moved her to the back row. The team hit .390 on the night while holding the Utes to just .087 hitting, despite only tallying 7 blocks--normally a Nittany Lion staple.
For their efforts, Slay, Scott, Hancock, McClendon and junior Nia Grant were named to the Northeast Region team, with Rose being named coach of the year for the region. The Lions will next face Michigan State, who defeated Ohio and host Kentucky in three and four sets, respectively.
Headed into the NCAA tournament, the Lions are riding a win streak that dates back to their first conference match this year--a 3-2 loss on September 27 at home against Michigan State. Despite avenging that loss in straight sets in East Lansing on November 2, Penn State is undoubtedly looking to make another statement on Friday. The match will be airing live on ESPN3.
Michigan State is making its 16th appearance in the NCAA tournament, having made the sweet sixteen last year. They'll look to stop Penn State's balanced offensive attack behind L Kori Moster, 2013 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, and OH Lauren Wicinski, both of whom earned all-region honors this past weekend. In their first meeting, PSU allowed Wicinski to hover around her season average in hitting percentage (.255 in that match, versus .242 on the year); in the win over the Spartans, though, the Lions completely shut the hitter down, causing her to hit a negative (-.080)--virtually unheard of for a hitter of caliber. It was easily Wicinski's worst performance of the year, and look for the Lions to attempt to do the same on Friday.
If Penn State gets by the Spartans, on Saturday they'll face the winner of Stanford vs Minnesota. Depending on who wins, the Lions have a good track record against both; two of the four national championships in the dynasty years were captured against the Cardinal, and Penn State swept the Gophers in their last meeting, on November 16 in Minneapolis, after squeaking out a five set victory earlier in the season at Rec Hall.
Stanford swept Hampton and Oklahoma at home in the first two rounds behind two-time All-American middle blocker Carly Wopat. They finished second in the Pac Twelve this year to a surprising Washington team, having won the conference outright in 2012; the Cardinal are one of two teams to have made an appearance in every single NCAA women's volleyball tournament (the other being, of course, your Penn State Nittany Lions). Penn State is currently 7-7 all time versus the Cardinal, with the last two being the aforementioned two National Title victories.
Minnesota is led by US Women's volleyball team coach Hugh McCutcheon, and boasts the Big Ten's second best server, Daly Santana--the first being, of course, our very own Hancock. It will be the fifth straight second tournament weekend for the Gophers, who defeated Radford and Colorado in three and five sets, respectively. In addition to McCutcheon and Santana, Minnesota relies heavily on middle blocker Tori Dixon.
Regardless of who the Nittany Lions face if they go further in the tournament, the Big Ten had seven women's volleyball teams advance to the sweet sixteen--setting an NCAA tournament record. The only team who didn't make it into the regional semis? Last year's "surprise" entrant to the final four, Michigan. If there are any more doubts about which conference is, top to bottom, the best for women's volleyball--there shouldn't be, despite the number of teams that the PAC 12 got into the first round of the tournament. The on-court results speak for themselves, and likely will even more so after this weekend.