In 40 seasons, Penn State volleyball has lost just 230 times. Friday’s will be more memorable than most.
The Nittany Lions were a point away from a stunning sweep of Nebraska, but eventually lost in five sets (25-23, 25-23, 24-26, 19-25, 6-15) in the NCAA Tournament regional semifinal.
“We had it and we didn’t close the deal,” coach Russ Rose said.
Penn State had 17 blocks — the most by a Nebraska opponent all season — but had just two in the final two sets. After letting two match points go by in the third set, Rose felt his team was deflated.
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“A couple kids ran out of gas,” Rose said. “Some of the players should be disappointed in their effort, their preparation.”
The top-seeded and defending national champion Cornhuskers will head to the regional finals at 4 p.m. Saturday to meet Washington, which swept Arizona 3-0.
The No. 16-seeded Nittany Lions (24-10) end the season with the most losses since finishing 36-10 in 1983.
Penn State followed a fall-behind-early, rally-late approach to win the first two sets.
Penn State rallied from a 22-20 deficit to win set one. Ali Frantti had a staggering nine kills in the set (she’d had seven in each of Penn State’s two losses this year to Nebraska) including one that put the Nittany Lions ahead 23-22. She closed the set with a solo block. Penn State had six blocks in the first set after putting up five in a loss at Nebraska last month.
Big Ten champion Nebraska (30-2) opened the second set on a 7-2 run, but the Nittany Lions responded with a four-point rally. Nebraska again led much of the way until the end. Trailing 22-19, Frantti had four kills and a solo block in a 6-1 run to close the set. Frantti finished with 21 kills but had just five in the final three sets.
“Frantti had a lot of attempts, and she started breaking down,” Nebraska coach John Cook said. “Our game plan the first time we played them, the second time we played them, and tonight was to go after her and try to wear her out.”
It appeared the Nittany Lions, who were 1-6 in five-set matches this season, would rally late yet again in set three. Nebraska’s 10-3 lead didn’t hold up as Penn State used more blocks to close the gap. Penn State ran off five straight points, two on kills from Simone Lee, to take a 24-22 lead, but Nebraska responded with four straight points.
The Nittany Lions hit .065 in a loss last month at Nebraska in which Lee hit minus-.032 — her only negative hitting percentage of the season. Lee had 22 kills and a .250 percentage Friday, but could only think about the one that got away — her swing in the third set while leading 24-23.
“I needed to close it, and I didn’t,” Lee said.
Nebraska’s Kelly Hunter and Amber Rolfzen teamed up for a block of Lee’s critical shot.
“I knew they were going to set her and I took away her go-to shot,” Rolfzen said.
Rolfzen caught the ball with her left hand, and moments later exhaled after Mikaela Foecke’s back-to-back kills ended the set.
“It’s not that I didn’t have confidence, but I thought ‘this might be it,’” Rolfzen said.
Nebraska had high expectations for this fall, with the Cornhuskers bringing back much of last year’s team.
Nebraska jumped to a 13-7 lead in the fourth set and led by at least four the rest of the way. Penn State had one block and hit .162 in the set.
Foecke, who struggled to hit but was strong on her serve, fired an ace to stretch the Cornhuskers lead to 9-4 in the final set. Penn State, which hit minus-.077 in the final game, won the next two but none thereafter as the Cornhuskers closed the match on a six-point run.
“The season’s over,” Rose said. “Now we move on.”