WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — The Penn State women's volleyball team took another step toward regaining the top spot in the volleyball world.
With some good defense and a little help from the Kentucky hitters, the Nittany Lions swept the Wildcats on Friday evening at Mackey Arena.
Top-seeded Penn State (32-2) dropped No. 16 Kentucky 25-18, 25-21, 25-12 and will face Minnesota in today's All-Big Ten regional final at 4 p.m.
"We needed to control the ball and we needed to try and find some seams," head coach Russ Rose said. "We have a few things in the game plan and the players did a nice job with those things."
The Golden Gophers outlasted host Purdue in the second semifinal 23-25, 26-24, 25-23, 25-21 in a match that lasted 2 hours, 20 minutes — an hour longer than the Nittany Lions’ match.
Today's winner will head to the NCAA Championship semifinals in Louisville, Ky., on Dec. 13. The finals are set for Dec. 15. Penn State is chasing its fifth title in six seasons.
Ariel Scott led everyone with 11 kills while Deja McClendon added eight kills and 10 digs to go with two aces, Megan Courtney had six kills and four blocks and Katie Slay had five kills and five blocks.
"We felt A-Scott was going to get her kills," Rose said. "We needed Deja and Megan to take some good swings out there. We thought we could get some swings out at the pins."
Dominique Gonzalez picked up 12 digs and Micha Hancock collected 28 assists and a pair of assists.
Whitney Billings led Kentucky (22-11) with eight kills while Ashley Frazier had seven kills but also had 11 hitting errors. The pair entered the match as Kentucky's top two hitting options. As a team the Wildcats had 29 kills and 25 hitting errors in hitting .040.
"I was trying to be aggressive and sometimes I wasn't being so smart," Frazier said. "When it wasn't in a place where I could take a rip at it, I probably should have been smart and just put it in play. Instead I chose to be aggressive and that resulted in quite a few errors."
Christine Hartmann had 25 assists and three blocks and Alexandra Morgan also had three blocks.
Penn State hit .306 on 37 kills and had just 11 hitting miscues. Penn State also won in digs 42-32, in aces 5-2 and the teams finished 7-7 in blocks.
"For us to out-dig them by 10 digs was really important," Rose said. "We thoguht the key for us was we thought our defense needed to match their defense. We saw them last year ... and they played great against Texas. We knew that their defensive intensity was going to be very high."
The Nittany Lions got off to a slow start, trailing 13-9 in the first set before taking off on a 13-4 run, keyed by four Scott kills, a block and kill each for Slay and Nia Grant and plenty of Wildcat help.
A McClendon kill midway through the second set put Penn State in the lead for good at 11-10, and after a lead as large as 22-18 was trimmed to 22-21, two more Wildcat errors sandwiched around a McClendon ace closed up the set.
"The key for us was that our defense was so good," Rose said of the tight play during the first two sets. "We didn't give them any easy kills at any point in time."
The Nittany Lions then took early command of the third set with an 8-1 run to erase any doubt who was the top team on the court, and the match closed with a Grant kill and two more Kentucky errors around a double block from Slay and Scott.
"I definitely think we passed well in the second and third sets wich really helped us," Scott said. "When we pass well we have a pretty good offense. We were a little worried about the passing, but Dom (Gonzalez) and other people picked it up and ended up doing a really good job."
The win sets up a Big Ten rematch. Penn State beat Minnesota during both regular-season meetings.
"The good news is we don't have to spend an incredible amount of time on the scouting report," Rose said.
Notes: Penn State has been in the regional finals five of the last six seasons and 13 times overall. ... Hancock now has 17 aces for the tournament through three matches. The NCAA record for total aces in a tournament is 20, set in 1998 by Misty May (of Olympic beach volleyball fame), with the final two of her total posted against Penn State in the finals. ... Tonight's match will be on WRSC-AM (1390) and on ESPNU. ... In addition to the Nittany Lions and Gophers, Michigan and Nebraska also won, giving the Big Ten four of the final eight teams remaining.