It wasn’t a loss, but it was still stunning.
No one does this to the Penn State women’s volleyball team.
The Nittany Lions are tough to beat at any time of the year, but even more daunting in the NCAA tournament, losing just three times in 61 contests in Rec Hall over nearly four decades.
They are even more challenging in the first round, having not lost a single set in an NCAA tournament opening match — at home or away — since 1991, well before anyone on the team was born.
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That last stat changed Friday night, with Howard poking a stick at the top-seeded Lions before Penn State finally prevailed 25-10, 22-25, 25-15, 25-16. The Nittany Lions will face Pitt at 7 p.m. in the second round Saturday at Rec Hall.
“They earned the game; we didn’t give them the game,” coach Russ Rose said. “They play hard and that’s what the NCAA tournament’s about.”
Colorado was the last team to take a set off the Nittany Lions (30-1) in an opening match.
After making numerous errors in the first set, the Bison found their game in the second, delivering aces and finding spaces in the Nittany Lion defense. Before the match, coach Shaun Kupferburg had told his team to, “Believe in the impossibility of the impossible.”
Howard setter Tamia Dockery, who had 39 assists, said the team sprinted down the long hallway to their locker room, believing in that very possibility after the set victory.
“That moment in the locker room was just the best feeling,” Dockery said. “Just coming in as a lower seed in the tournament, taking a set off Penn State, the No. 1 seed, was just great.”
The mood in the Nittany Lions’ room was a bit different, however.
“I have a lot of seniors,” Rose said. “When I got to the room, one of them was already yelling at everybody else so I didn’t have to say a lot.”
Defensively, the Bison had Big Ten Player of the Year Simone Lee figured out, holding her to five kills.
“I thought we could control their outsides,” Kupferberg said. “Simone might be a national player of the year, I don’t know. She’s obviously an elite player. But ... our team’s really athletic.”
But Howard had no answers for middle hitters Haleigh Washington and Tori Gorrell. Washington put down 13 kills and hit .500, while Gorrell added 11 kills on .714 hitting.
“Tonight I thought the setters did a really good job of finding me in the gap,” Gorrell said.
Added Rose: “It’s unfortunate that we didn’t set her more during the year. She wasn’t able to get recognized in any sort of awards because we didn’t set her enough, and yet she’s hitting close to .500. I thought she was good in the last couple matches.”
Ali Frantti contributed a dozen kills, Abby Detering gave out 28 assists while Bryanna Weiskircher distributed 16 assists, Kendall White picked up 18 digs and Washington added five blocks.
Jessica Young’s 11 kills paced the Bison (16-16).
Pitt 3, VCU 1
The Panthers used a balanced attack and some high-pressure serving for the 25-14, 25-20, 18-25, 25-13 win at Rec Hall.
Nika Markovic’s 17 kills paced five Panthers with at least eight kills, overcoming a 15-7 blocking advantage for the Rams.
Now Panthers have to tangle with the Nittany Lions in Rec Hall, on the heels on Howard’s brief shock.
“We’re just all up for the challenge to play them again,” said the Panthers’ Layne Van Buskirk, who added 13 kills. “I know I’m pumped to play them.”
Even with one day to prepare, the team is eager to hit the court again.
“To get into the Sweet 16, you’re going to have to beat someone really good,” Pitt coach Dan Fisher said. “We’re excited to get the chance to do that.”