LOUISVILLE, Ky. – A turned ankle turned the Penn State volleyball team’s fortunes.
The Nittany Lions’ All-American setter, Micha Hancock, injured her ankle early in the match, and though she returned not long after, she and the team were never the same.
Oregon eliminated Penn State 21-25, 30-28, 25-22, 25-19 in front of 13,385 fans at the KFC Yum! Center on Thursday night.
“Obviously this isn’t how we wanted to end our season,” said junior All-American outside hitter Ariel Scott, whose 18 kills led everyone in the match. “But the other team was a good team and we played hard. It’s pretty disappointing, though.”
The Ducks will face Texas, which endured a feisty Michigan team before prevailing in a five-set marathon in the other semifinal, in the championship match. The teams will tangle at 7 p.m. Saturday.
The Nittany Lion game plan was upset in the second set when setter Micha Hancock rolled her ankle and was forced to leave the match for a spell. The first-team All-American sophomore returned later in the frame, but she was clearly slowed. She was unable to block, and her normally lethal topspin jump serve was neutralized as she was forced to do a simple jump float. She had an NCAA-record 22 aces in the first four matches of the tournament, but didn’t have any Thursday night.
“Our best rotation is with Micha serving and hitting the jump serve, and when that (injury) happened we didn’t have a good Plan B,” said Rose, who even changed his serving order from Hancock serving first to last because of the injury.
“We were worried for her, obviously, but we had to focus on the game,” said libero Dominique Gonzalez. “(We had to) stay focused, stay calm and if she was going to stay in we had to get the ball up high to her.”
The Nittany Lions (33-3) had been seeking their fifth national title in the last six seasons and sixth overall. Instead, the Ducks (30-4) will be in the finals for the first time.
Penn State lost despite a massive edge in blocking, rocking a 19.5-10 advantage, but the Ducks just kept hammering away and hardly made any unforced errors on their swings. Oregon had a 63-52 edge in kills and hit .170 to Penn State’s .165 night.
“We definitely blocked a lot today, but we didn’t match that in hitting,” Scott said. “It pretty much evened out.”
Oregon got a big night from its national Player of the Year candidate, with Alaina Bergsma tallying 16 kills and 15 digs. Katherine Fischer also had 16 kills and Liz Brenner posted 17 kills and 17 digs. Lauren Plum gave out 51 assists, Haley Jacob had 20 digs and Canace Finley had 20 blocks.
Hometown girl Deja McClendon added 14 kills and three of Penn State’s six aces. Gonzalez collected 22 digs with 12 each for Courtney and Hancock, and Hancock also had 45 assists. Eight blocks each for Katie Slay and Megan Courtney led he defense, while Scott and Nia Grant each added five.
Penn State put up an overwhelming block in the first set, stuffing the Ducks 6-0, to make a physical statement and open the match with a 25-21 win.
Oregon turned the tables, finding seems through the block to open up a 9-4 lead to start the second when the Nittany Lions lost a big weapon as Hancock turned her ankle. Kristin Carpenter did well as the emergency setter, even rocking a solo block, but the margin was at 16-9 when Hancock returned with a taped ankle and got as bad as 20-10.
But then Penn State found new life, with some big swings from Scott and some more huge blocking, and after fighting off two set points the team tied the frame at 24-24.
“We kind of knew going in they were going to go to the hitter most likely to get the ball, and Lauren (Plum, the setter) had a hard time adjusting to that,” said Oregon coach Jim Moore, whose team was outblocked 15.5-4 in the first two sets. “…You’ve got to trust whatever’s happening in that system.”
The Lions even had three set points of their own but could not convert, though a Bergsma spike clearly ticked the antenna but was not called by the officials. A Brenner kill on an overpass finally finished the set.
“We had a few opportunities in the second game that we let slip away,” Rose said. “We lost a lot of confidence and steam at that point in time.”
“The second set we were up by a lot, definitely got lax a little bit and let them come back in the game,” Bergsma said. “But I think that was really clutch for us to go in knowing it’s tied, set three’s basically starting over a game to two.”
During the intermission between the second and third sets, the Lion coaches did their best to rework the game plan with a hobbled Hancock, but they could only do so much.
“It was also obvious between games two and three that Micha wasn’t getting healthier,” Rose said. “We needed to win that second game and we might have been able to camouflage our way through and do some other things.”
In the third, again Oregon led for most of the set but Penn State rallied to a 20-19 lead after a Gonzalez ace and Scott cross-court kill, but back-to-back kills for Fischer put the Ducks back on top, and then another one from her put them on top for good as she had four kills among their last six points in a 25-22 triumph.
Desperate to regain the momentum, the Nittany Lions could not ask for a worse way to start the fourth, giving up four aces while falling behind 9-3 and they could never regain the magic, never again cutting the margin to less than five. A Plum kill finished off the match and the Penn State season.
“I’m pretty happy right now, obviously,” Moore said. “But there’s more work to do and I wasn’t just happy to get here.”