UNIVERSITY PARK — It may not have been the prettiest match, the numbers may not have been the most impressive, but the bottom line still turned out to be in Penn State’s favor.
The No. 3 Nittany Lion volleyball team struggled most of Friday night but found their game when they needed it to put away No. 10 Minnesota at Rec Hall.
Behind 20 kills from Ariel Scott, 11 from Katie Slay and seven aces from Micha Hancock, Penn State notched a 25-21, 25-19, 23-25, 25-21 victory as it strengthened its Big Ten lead.
“It’s good to be back home,” said Scott after the team returned from a four-game road trip. “We were connecting well and that was part of the game plan. I think we did OK.”
Coupled with Nebraska’s five-set loss at Michigan on Friday, the Nittany Lions (22-2, 12-1) hold a two-game lead on the Cornhuskers and Golden Gophers in the conference standings.
The good numbers: The Nittany Lions had a 58-42 advantage in kills, a 72-49 margin for digs and an 11-5 edge in aces.
The bad numbers: Penn State finished with 27 hitting errors, hit just .204 and were outblocked 16-9.
“I thought our defense was very good and our blocking wasn’t good,” head coach Russ Rose said. “After two game,s A-Scott had 15 kills and Minnesota had 16 kills. I thought she was great early, and we didn’t do a very good job at two or three other positions tonight. I was pretty disappointed in a couple people’s performances tonight.”
Hancock also had 46 assists and 15 digs, Dominique Gonzalez picked up 20 digs and Deja McClendon had 17. Nia Grant also had nine kills and Slay added five kills. Grant and Slay combined for 20 kills on 40 swings to bring strong production from Penn State’s middle hitters.
“We wanted to focus on running middle and Nia did a great job,” Slay said. “It was definitely a game plan and it helped us out.”
McClendon did have nine kills, but that came with 10 errors to hit minus-.023, while Megan Courtney had seven kills and hit .211.
“The outside hitters were bad, so we had to set the middles and A-Scott,” Rose added. “You’re not going to win a match if your outside hitter hits negative and I think it’s pretty safe to say that’s the moral of the story.”
Leading Minnesota’s blocking parade were Tori Dixon, with 11, and six for Kathrine Harms. Ashley Wittman led with 12 kills, Alexandra Palmer contributed 37 assists and Lindsey Lawmaster posted 13 digs.
Penn State took advantage of a lack of production by Minnesota in the first set, which helped mask a high number of errors that kept the frames closer than they needed to be. The Nittany Lions gave up 12 unforced errors in those sets but still won.
It caught up to them in the third, with six free points on errors, plus three swings blocked, countering McClendon’s only real productive set of the night and a run of four straight aces for Hancock. The run of aces turned an 11-8 deficit into a 12-11 lead, but the advantage was gone by 14-13.
“You shouldn’t expect to win when you hit 7 percent and they hit 35 percent,” Rose said. “That was a game where they didn’t make very many mistakes and we didn’t do a very good job at the net. I thought we did some things pretty well and move on — that’s what you’ve got to do.”
By that point the Lions had a 46-30 lead in kills but were being outblocked 12-5.
The Nittany Lions finally cut down on the errors in the fourth just enough to edge ahead for the win. After cooling off in the third, Scott, Grant and Courtney each had three kills in the fourth. Courtney’s kills all came on the final three points of the match, with two spikes down the line and the last cross-court to close the contest.
“These guys should put their foot on the pedal and they should go hard and go forward and try to win something,” Rose said. “They shouldn’t look at doing something else.”
Notes: Penn State has today off and will host a rare Sunday match — to acomodate national television on ESPN2 — with a 2 p.m. meeting with Wisconsin at Rec Hall. ... Earning a decent applause from Nittany Lion fans during pregame introductions was Gophers head coach Hugh McCutcheon, who coached the U.S. women’s team to a silver medal this past summer and the U.S. men’s team to gold in 2008. ... Hancock’s ace total matched her career high. ... Minnesota hit .207 — the first time this season an opponent had out-hit Penn State.