It appeared the Penn State women’s volleyball team was on the brink of blowing a two-set lead.
But the right person stepped to the service line at the right time, and the Nittany Lions caught fire.
Micha Hancock delivered a pair of aces as the Nittany Lions ran off the final five points of the match — and another national title was theirs.
Behind a match-high 21 kills from Ariel Scott, and three key aces from tournament Most Outstanding Player Hancock, Penn State held on for a 25-19, 26-24, 20-25, 25-23 victory over Wisconsin on Saturday night at KeyArena for the program’s sixth national championship and fifth in seven seasons.
“It was a grind-out match,” said coach Russ Rose, who has been at the progam’s helm for 35 seasons, “which we knew we would have to do because of how well Wisconsin plays.”
The crown, wrapped up in the first all-Big Ten national title match, ties Stanford for the most in NCAA history as the Lions won their 24th consecutive match.
“I couldn’t be happier,” said Scott, who took 51 swings and hit .294. “There’s no better way to end my collegiate career.”
Penn State (33-2) also got 14 kills on .481 hitting from Katie Slay, 11 kills from Deja McClendon, five blocks and 20 digs from Megan Courtney, four stuffs from Nia Grant, 20 digs from Dominique Gonzalez, and 48 assists, 16 digs from Hancock.
“This is every collegiate volleyball player’s dream — to win a national championship,” Gonzalez said. “Being able to do that is pretty awesome.”
Wisconsin (28-9) was led by Dominique Thompson’s 16 kills and five blocks, and 5-foot-7 Deme Morales’ 15 kills on 51 swings, matching Scott for the match high. The Badgers also got seven kills and nine blocks from Haleigh Nelson, 26 digs from Annemarie Hickey and 39 assists from Lauren Carlini.
Penn State finished the match hitting .206, with 16 hitting errors over the final two sets and 27 total. The Lions also had a 62-46 kills advantage, a 78-73 edge in digs and a 6-2 lead in aces. Wisconsin hit .172 and won the blocking battle 14-9.
After knocking out the first two sets, Penn State lost its rhythm in the third set.
It took a little while, but the Nittany Lions began to find their game again in the fourth set, with passes starting to hit the mark again, and McClendon starting to find her hitting touch after a number of errors over the previous two sets. But the Nittany Lion play fell apart again, with three errors over five points, and a Badger ace, to put Wisconsin ahead 22-19 and the match appeared headed to a fifth set.
But Grant ripped a kill that brought Penn State back to life, and after the teams traded points Hancock was back at the service line at just the right time. She delivered the first ace ahead of a Slay kill on an overpass to knot it at 23-23. After a time out, Hancock ticked the net with another serve that flumoxed the Badgers just enough to give her another ace and match point, and seconds later an overpass floated above the net for McClendon to punch to the floor to wrap up another banner season for the Nittany Lions.
“I didn’t want to go to five (sets),” Hancock said of her mentality stepping to the line at that critical moment. “I don’t think anyone did.”
“It’s a great win,” Rose told ESPN2. “The kids played hard and we’ll have a little fun for a little bit now.”
The Nittany Lions pulled away in the opening set with a 6-2 run midway through, with back-to-back blocks by the combination of Slay and Hancock and two Slay kills highlighting the run. Penn State hit .350 and held a 19-9 advantage in kills in the frame.
Penn State carried the momentum well into the second set, rocketing to an 11-5 lead with more big swings from Scott. But Wisconsin rallied to knot the set at 14-14, and they stayed tight the rest of the frame. The Badgers had the lead at 23-22, and again had set point at 24-23, and both times Badgers put serves into the net. Scott closed out the set with two straight kills, giving her eight put-aways in the frame.
“We’ve got the hammer over there,” Hancock said. “I wanted to feed her.”
Both teams came out of the break between sets with some ragged play, with a combined 13 hitting errors by the timeout when the Baders led 15-12. Two Morales kills to go with a block on Scott over the final three points leading into the timeout gave Wisconsin the lead. The lead stayed between three and five the rest of the set to breathe life into Wisconsin, with a Paulina Prieto Cerame serve into the net locking up the frame.
Rose declined after the match to say where this win ranks among the program’s six titles.
“That’s like asking me about the birth of my children and where they rank,” Rose joked.