So many times it seemed the match was going to slip away from Penn State’s grasp.
When the Nittany Lion women’s volleyball team played poorly in the fourth set, Stanford seemed to have the momentum.
When the Cardinal had a 9-6 lead in the fifth — a mere six points from victory — some may have wondered if the Penn State season was about to end.
But the Nittany Lions kept fighting, and have booked themselves a flight to Seattle.
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Behind 22 kills for Ariel Scott and 21 from Deja McClendon, second-seeded Penn State outlasted No. 7 Stanford on Saturday evening in the NCAA regional finals at Kentucky’s Memorial Coliseum 22-25, 25-22, 28-26, 18-25, 15-11.
“I’m just so happy that we did it right,” said McClendon, who was named the Lexington Regional’s Most Outstanding Player. “It could have been my last game ever in Lexington and Kentucky, and with these girls, and it’s been such a tough run for us. This team means so much to me and it means so much to take us to Seattle. I feel like I earned something humongous right now.”
Penn State (32-2) will meet No. 3 Washington, a five-set winner over No. 6 Southern California, in the national semifinals on Thursday night at Seattle’s Key Arena. They will battle at about 9:30 p.m. in the night’s second match.
No. 12 Wisconsin will face top-seed and defending national champion Texas in the first match at 7:30 p.m.
The Nittany Lions will be making their sixth final four appearance in the last seven seasons, and will be seeking their fifth title in that span and sixth in program history.
McClendon also had a big night defensively with 16 digs and four blocks while Katie Slay had nine kills and .438 hitting with 10 blocks.
“I thought tonight our seniors really carried the day,” said coach Russ Rose, who earned his 1,123rd career coaching win. “I thought that Katie Slay, A-Scott and Deja were exceptional at the things they needed to do to enable the team to be successful.”
Megan Courtney also had nine kills, Micha Hancock gave out 58 assists to go with a pair of aces, Hancock and Dominique Gonzalez each had 15 digs and Courtney posted 14.
Penn State hit just .187 — far below the .314 mark the team carried into the weekend, which ranked third in the nation — and had an uncharacteristic 23 unforced hitting errors.
“We came out we looked a little sloppy,” Hancock said. “It could have been a little cleaner from me, especially, but I think we showed true grind. It wasn’t the best win we’ve had, but it sure was a win.”
Stanford was paced by 17 kills each for Rachel Williams and Jordan Burgess, and 11 kills apiece for Carly Wopat and Inky Ajanaku, and those two middle blockers also had six and seven blocks, respectively. Burgess and Brittany Howard each had 18 digs, Kyle Gilbert added 15 digs, Madi Bugg and Williams each had 12 digs and Bugg also gave out 54 assists.
Following a rough fourth set, Stanford seized an early 8-5 lead in the fifth with a 4-1 run built on a pair of blocks, a Penn State hitting error and a Howard kill. A Hancock kill and another Stanford block took the score to 9-6, and the Lions were teetering on a close to their season. But McClendon ripped off a kill, Hancock and Slay teamed up to block Williams and McClendon drilled another spike into the court at a sharp angle to knot up the frame. The run continued when Slay pounced on an overpass for a kill, and Slay teamed up with McClendon, then with Hancock, on two more stuffs for a 12-9 lead. A few points later Courtney finally finished the match with a soft swing for a kill and the ticket to Seattle.
The teams traded multi-point runs and the lead several times in the first set, and a Paulina Prieto Cerame ace had the Nittany Lions in front 22-21. But she missed her next serve, Williams put down a kill and two straight Penn State hitting errors closed the frame. Williams had five kills in the set. Neither team hit well — .114 for the Cardinal and .149 for the Lions — and Penn State built a 6-3 blocking advantage.
Penn State controlled the second half of the second set, with McClendon and Scott each putting down seven kills. The last from McClendon wrapped up the game. The highlight point of the second set was a long rally with the teams tied at 14-14 and featured several sprawling digs on huge Stanford swings. Lacey Fuller made one of the big diving digs, Hancock raced around the net pole for a hustling save and McClendon later ended the point with a kill.
After losing the lead late in the first set and trailing for most of the second, the point put momentum on the Nittany Lions’ side in a 4-0 run.
“When someone digs the ball, especially with Lacey — Lacey’s flying, Lacey’s crazy,” Hancock said. “That’s always cool to execute off a play like that. It’s such a good thing to get the team going and pull everyone together.”
Penn State appeared to have control for most of the third set, swiping the first three points and keeping the lead between two and five nearly the whole way. But a late Cardinal rally tied the frame at 23-23, and they fought off three Lion set points before consecutive Scott kills finally closed it. Scott and McClendon had eight and seven kills, respectively.
Stanford used a 6-0 run later in the fourth to post the largest margin in any set at 23-14 before a mini Penn State run made it a little tighter. Penn State recorded 10 errors against 10 kills to hit .000, which was assisted by five Cardinal blocks.
“I was disappointed in how many points we gave away in the fourth and the fifth game,” Rose said. “But Stanford can do that. They’re very talented.”
It was a long match, lasting 2 hours, 34 minutes, and was filled with a lot of twists and turns, but the Nittany Lions are liking where the road has led them.
“Physically, I need to take a break,” McClendon said. “But emotionally, I’m ready to roll. I can’t wait to play again.”
Notes: Despite not having host Kentucky for the weekend’s matches, the contest drew 1,824. ... Stanford hit .221. Penn State won the battles in blocks (15-13), digs (84-79), kills (77-62) and aces (3-1). ... The Nittany Lions will be making their 11th NCAA semifinal appearance.