As the ball sailed over the net, the Nittany Lions knew this was the moment they needed.
Ohio State sent over a freeball, the ball was set to Chris Nugent, and just like he had been doing all night, he took a huge swing. The ball bounced off the Buckeye blockers and flew along the net, bouncing just wide of the sideline.
It clinched a five-set victory for the Penn State men’s volleyball team against the nation’s No. 1 team, and delivered a big jolt of confidence to the Nittany Lions heading into the final weeks of the season.
Paced by Nugent’s nine kills, the No. 13 Lions prevailed 25-21, 14-25, 25-15, 22-25, 15-12 Tuesday night at Rec Hall.
“For anybody, it feels good to take down the best team in the country,” said Jalen Penrose, who knocked down 10 kills. “It’s definitely going to give us a confidence boost going into this weekend.”
Penn State (14-9) had lost three of its past four entering its final non-conference match on the schedule
It was just the Buckeyes’ second loss in the last 48 matches, dating back to early February of last season, and Penn State’s first win over their Big Ten rival since March 21, 2015, ending a three-game skid against the Buckeyes (23-2).
“We felt there was really nothing to lose,” Penn State coach Mark Pavlik said. “Everybody that looked at this matchup tonight outside of the guys in that locker room, said, ‘Well, Ohio State should take care of business.’”
Ohio State had won the national championship at Rec Hall last season, as well as the 2011 title in the building, but didn’t have the same magic Tuesday thanks to a lot of trouble with its passing and serving.
“(Penn State) played hard, they played well and our guys weren’t very good,” Ohio State coach Pete Hanson said. “Bottom line is, our passers stunk tonight.”
The Nittany Lions were glad to hand the loss to the Buckeyes, who returned most of last season’s title team and will be hosting this year’s national championship tournament in May.
“We have a little saying: Return the favor,” Nugent said, wanting another shot at the Buckeyes at the national tournament.
Nathan Smith, in just his fourth match of the season as the primary setter, directed the offense to .266 hitting with his 39 assists, adding 10 digs. The biggest beneficiary was Nugent, who had just two errors and hit .515. Aidan Albrecht added 14 kills and Matt Callaway collected six blocks including a pair of solo stuffs as the team heads into the final six matches of the regular season, all in the EIVA as the team looks to clinch another conference title.
“We’ve got to carry this confidence, and the focus and intensity, into this weekend,” Pavlik said. “We’ve got to win the EIVA, and the next three weekends are so much more important than tonight was.”
Miles Johnson put down 15 kills to pace the Buckeyes while Maxime Hervoir added 11 kills and three aces. Nicolas Szerszen, the 2016 national Player of the Year, was held to eight kills. Blake Leeson led the blockers with six.
After trading wins over the first four sets, including a Penn State domination in the third when the Buckeyes were held to minus-.080 hitting and had 10 errors, the drama was set up for the fifth frame.
The Nittany Lions had an early lead, and it got to 8-4 after Penrose and Callaway teamed up to block Szerszen to bring an Ohio State timeout. The Buckeyes rallied and had the set knotted at 10-10, and they were again tied at 12-12 when Albrecht took a quick set out of the back row for a kill to give the Lions the lead for good. Nugent pounced on an overpass to get them to match point, then the free ball came over from the Buckeyes and the senior took one last big swing to secure the upset.
“It’s been apparent we can come back better than any team and we can lose energy better than any team,” Nugent said of the season. “Tonight we really brought it.”