WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — It was appropriate that a Louisville native took care of the end of the match.
Deja McClendon rocketed in a kill with one big swing to close out a huge final sequence individually, giving her a chance to head home for a few days.
The last of the junior outside hitters 14 kills gave the top-seeded Penn State womens volleyball team a four-set win over No. 8 Minnesota in the NCAA regional finals, locking up a spot at the national championship semifinals in McClendons hometown in Kentucky.
McClendon also had 12 digs and seven blocks, including four solo stuffs, while Ariel Scott had a huge night with 24 kills in the 25-19, 19-25, 26-24, 25-19 victory at Purdues Mackey Arena.
The Nittany Lions (33-2) are returning to the national semifinals for the fifth time in six years and for the 10th time in program history. They also will be seeking their fifth title in six seasons when they walk into Louisvilles KFC Yum! Center for Thursdays semifinal match against Oregon. The finals are Saturday night.
The Ducks beat Nebraska 3-1 in a regional final in Omaha, Neb. The other national semifinal was decided late, with Michigan facing Stanford and Texas battling Southern California in the other two regional finals.
Micha Hancock gave out 46 assists to go with 13 digs and also served up all of her teams five aces, giving her 22 for the NCAA tournament to break the record for most in an entire tournament. The mark had been held by Long Beach States Misty May, who would go on to win three Olympic gold medals in beach volleyball, set in 1998 and capped by two aces in beating Penn State in the finals.
The only really important thing for me is, I need to get my serve in so I can help my team, Hancock said. Thats a really strong rotation for us anyway, so keeping it in and also knowing I can go hard at it is a good feeling.
Freshman Megan Courtney added 11 kills and 10 digs, Nia Grant also had seven blocks and libero Dominique Gonzalez had a busy night in the back row with a match-high 20 digs.
Penn State hit .237 to the Gophers .177 and had the edge in kills (62-49) and digs (73-61) while the teams finished knotted in the blocking battle 14-14.
(Minnesota is) an incredibly physical team with three or four kids that have big arms, head coach Russ Rose said. At the end Deja had some big blocks, but A-Scott was on offensively (and) Michas serving kept us in it when other things were starting to get shaky out there.
Katherine Harms 17 kills led the Golden Gophers (27-8), while Daly Santana and Tori Dixon each added eight kills. Dixon and Dana Knudsen each had six blocks, Santana and Morgan Bohl each collected 13 digs and Alexandra Palmer had 38 assists and 12 digs.
Minnesota did not make this one easy, putting together a number of runs just when it seemed the Nittany Lions were ready to take control of the match. The third set alone, which at one point had a 14-8 Penn State lead, had 11 ties and five lead changes, including six ties from 15-15 to the end of the frame.
Its rally scoring momentums going to change, Gonzalez said. Its just really important to seize control when you can and run with it the best you can.
But after seeing that third-set lead disappear and the Gophers take a 23-21 lead after controlling most of the second set, Penn State came back with some big points from Hancock, McClendon and Scott. Hancock put down a pair of kills, McClendon knocked a spike off a Gopher block and after a Knudsen kill registered one of her solo blocks on Harms, and Scott closed out the frame with a put-away.
We took some good swings at the ball and we missed maybe by inches at times, Dixon said of the third set. I think we were right there with them the entire time.
Penn State again had a 9-4 lead in the fourth only to see Minnesota rally and eventually take the lead, but a Scott kill put the Lions in front to stay at 18-17 as Penn State rolled off eight of the final nine points. With the lead at 20-18, McClendon had a solo block, then a kill, then teamed with Hancock for a block, then another solo block and finally ripped off the matchs final swing to lock up the victory.
In our last timeout we told each other we need to focus really hard on these last couple points and go super hard, Gonzalez said. We know Minnesotas coming in really strong, theyre fighting. I think Deja did a really good job of focusing where her hitter was.
Hancock also got three of her aces during the final game.
Now, the Nittany Lions have to make a quick turnaround, heading to Kentucky on Tuesday in search of another national title after missing out on continuing their run last year.
We were talented last year but we had a lot to learn, Hancock said. We worked hard in the spring, the offseason, and they got us here so well see what we can do with it.