Women’s Volleyball Dynasty Continues With National Championship Victory Over Wisconsin
Heading into tonight’s national championship match, Penn State had handily swept the Wisconsin Badgers twice in the regular season. Everybody expected another effortless victory for the Nittany Lions en route to their sixth national title.
Instead, Penn State found its hands full as the Badgers gave the Nittany Lions everything they could handle. Squandered opportunities by Wisconsin and a strong finish by the Nittany Lions led to a 3-1 victory (25-19, 26-24, 20-25, 25-23) that brings another championship home to Happy Valley.
Deja McClendon had her worst game of postseason play, hitting just .068. McClendon was third on the team with 11 kills, but had eight hitting errors on the night just two days after the entire team had just five errors. While Penn State’s star player struggled, others picked up the slack around her. Katie Slay hit .481 while posting 14 kills and just one error in the match. Ariel Scott led the Nittany Lions with 21 kills, hitting .294 and adding five digs. Micha Hancock did what she always does, stuffing the stat sheet with 48 assists, 16 digs, five kills, two blocks, and three aces, including two much-needed ones late in a close fourth set.
This wasn’t the same Penn State team that dominated No. 3 Washington just two days earlier to make it to the final match of the NCAA Tournament. The Nittany Lions were undisciplined on attack attempts, struggling to find the court or blockers’ fingertips on spikes throughout the match, partly due to some stout defense from the Badgers.
The first set went back and forth early on. Wisconsin had a two-point lead before Penn State tied things up at 5-5 behind two straight Courtney kills assisted by Hancock. Wisconsin pulled ahead again, but the Nittany Lions were able to keep things close. Neither team led by more than two points until Penn State began to open things up late in the set. A 16-15 lead led to a four-point run that put the Nittany Lions ahead 20-15. Slay had two kills in the series and soon enough, Penn State was facing a 24-19 set point. Scott got the kill and the Nittany Lions led 1-0 despite an impressive push from Wisconsin.
The second set went differently. Penn State got out to a quick 10-4 lead, but Wisconsin went on a run to tie up the set at 14. It was even the rest of the way, but two late Badgers service errors kept the Nittany Lions around and Scott finished off the set with two straight kills for a 26-24 win, putting just one set win between Penn State and its first national championship since 2010.
The third set saw more of the same, with the Nittany Lions pulled ahead 5-1 thanks to a number of attack errors by Wisconsin before the Badgers managed to score four straight to knot it up. By the midway point in the set, there was no clear favorite as the teams were tied at 12, but Wisconsin scored five straight points to go up 17-12, putting Penn State in a deep hole. The Nittany Lions went on a run to make it close, but Wisconsin finished things off thanks to a Penn State service error to take the third set 25-20 and extend the national championship match to a fourth frame.
The fourth and final set was arguably the best of the night as it included a number of long, decisive rallies that were key in Penn State’s title win. Every time that the Nittany Lions began to pull away, the Badgers found a way to string points together to stay in it in an attempt to force a fifth set. With the score tied at 18, errors by Courtney and McClendon gave Wisconsin a 20-18 lead as the Badgers threatened to win their second straight set.
The teams traded points before Wisconsin went up 23-20. A costly service error made it 23-21 and gave Hancock the serve, prompting a storybook ending to the season. Hancock aced her first serve. Slay picked up a kill on the next to tie up the set at 23. Hancock aced again to give Penn State the lead, and McClendon picked up a kill for a 25-23 set win that clinched the Nittany Lions’ sixth champaionship.
Hancock was named the Most Valuable Player of the NCAA Tournament after being named Big Ten Setter of the Year following the regular season. Hancock’s dangerous serve was at the forefront in the final two rounds of the tournament as she helped carry the Nittany Lions’ to victories over Washington and Wisconsin. Head coach Russ Rose, named the AVCA Coach of the Year just days earlier, can add another accolade to an already long list with the title win.
This was Penn State’s first championship since the team won four straight from 2007 to 2010. The Badgers downed the top ranked Texas Longhorns on Thursday, paving the way for what would have been a historic win for the 12th-seeded Wisconsin, but it was all for naught as Penn State was able to add another championship to a program that has already become a dynasty in the realm of NCAA women’s volleyball.