Penn State volleyball: Nittany Lions wrap up share of Big Ten title

It was the perfect send-off for a half-dozen Nittany Lion seniors.

The Penn State women’s volleyball team locked up one more win and picked up a share of the Big Ten title.

Behind 18 kills apiece for two of those seniors, Deja McClendon and Ariel Scott, the No. 2 Nittany Lions held off No. 20 Illinois 25-20, 25-17, 23-25, 25-16 Saturday night at Rec Hall.

“It was tough not to let (the tears) out, but we have a game to play,” McClendon said. “To see everyone and all their families, all that support that we’ve had for the past couple years, it’s just amazing and sad.”

The Senior Night festivities included honoring the six women who are headed toward graduation, including McClendon, Scott, Katie Slay, Maddie Martin and two who are departing with a year of eligibility left — Erica Denney and State College’s Maggie Harding.

The group had to control the tears as each walked out with family members for their flowers and team blankets.

“I thought I took it as fun, congratulations-type-of-thing,” Slay said of trying to keep her emotions in check right before the match. “My brother was being really funny when I was with him so it wasn’t too emotional.”

The Big Ten title is the 16th in program history, second straight and 10th in the last 11 seasons.

The Nittany Lions (26-2, 17-1) can wrap up the conference title outright Wednesday night, visiting Ohio State. Penn State holds a two-game lead on No. 6 Nebraska with two matches left for each. The Nittany Lions and Cornhuskers meet next Saturday night to close the regular season.

“It’ll be cooler when we’re not sharing it,” Martin said.

“It’s nice to get,” Harding added. “But that’s not the goal for the team. We’re still pushing.”

McClendon also picked up 18 digs while Megan Courtney led with 19 digs to go with four blocks, including a pair of solo stuffs. Nia Grant led with five blocks and Micha Hancock posted 52 assists.

Penn State did not play its best match of the year, hitting just .233, but both defenses made things tough. The Nittany Lions barely won both the blocking battle, 10.5 to 10, and the digs 70-68.

“I don’t think either team played their best,” said coach Russ Rose, whose team won 3-2 at Illinois a month ago. “That’s what happens when there’s a lot at stake and teams know each other well.”

While Scott and McClendon each had some highlight-worth swings to show off their power, they also showed off their wily veteran sides. McClendon was especially clever in using the Illini blocking to her advantage, with 11 of her 18 kills coming off swings through or bouncing off a blocker’s hands.

“Sometimes it’s intentional, sometimes you’ve got to take a swing,” McClendon said. “Those are some big girls out there, kind of undersized sometimes, you’ve just got to use them.”

The Nittany Lions seemed in control after the opening two sets, when Scott and McClendon were each in double figures in kills and the Illini (15-13, 11-7) were collecting plenty of errors.

But Illinois shot to a lead as large as 15-7 in the third before Penn State began to chip away, although the Lions were never able to completely close the gap.

Blocking out the set loss, Penn State shot to a 9-3 lead to open the fourth set, capped by a kill and solo block for Courtney, and the margin never was closer than four the rest of the way.

Jocelynn Birks’ 22 kills, Alexis Viliunas’ 32 assists and 14 digs, Jennifer Beltran’s 20 digs and Anna Dorn’s six blocks led the Illini.

Notes: Despite Saturday’s 23-20 football loss to Nebraska across campus going into overtime, a crowd of 3,924 was on hand for the volleyball match. … After posting five straight 3-0 sweeps, Penn State dropped a set in both matches on the weekend. … Hancock, who entered the match leading the nation in aces per set (0.70) and as the Nittany Lions’ career leader with 237 set Friday night, was held without an ace for just the fourth time this season. … The NCAA tournament bracket will be announced Dec. 1.