For the second time in as many nights, the Penn State women’s volleyball team faltered in the second set to leave the Rec Hall fans uneasy.
But midway through the third frame, the crowd was roaring as Haleigh Washington helped her team rack up one point after another.
The No. 1 Nittany Lions prevailed and booked another spot in the sweet 16.
Washington had a monster night, as did all of Penn State’s blockers, in a 25-20, 23-25, 25-22, 25-19 victory over Pittsburgh in the NCAA second round.
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“A lot of times a big gut-check out there,” said coach Russ Rose, whose team has won 21 straight matches. “We hung in there at critical times.”
The Nittany Lions (31-1) are in the regional semifinals for the 15th straight year and 31st time overall, and are hosting the second weekend of the tournament for the first time since 2010. They will meet Missouri, a four-set winner over Wichita State, on Friday. Michigan State and Illinois will meet in an All-Big Ten battle in the other regional semifinal Friday, with the winners meeting Saturday for a spot in the final four.
Penn State was paced by Washington’s 16 kills on .483 hitting and seven blocks. Simone Lee’s 19 kills led the offense, with Ali Frantti adding 14 kills and five blocks. Tori Gorrell also notched seven kills, Bryanna Weiskircher gave out 28 assists and Kendall White picked up 15 digs.
After dropping the second set to Howard in Friday’s first round match, Penn State did it again Saturday. It wasn’t that the Nittany Lions necessarily had the errors that show on the stat sheet, but inconsistent passing and communication issues —twice there were near-collisions on what should have been easy-to-play free balls — led to some struggles.
“We just knew that we had to play better,” Lee said. “We knew it was going to be a battle and we knew that Pitt wasn’t going to roll over. We knew that we had to keep fighting no matter what.”
Pitt (26-7) was able to take the set with solid passing to help beat the Nittany Lions’ blockers. The Panthers didn’t make many unforced errors in the entire match, but the steady play showed the most in the second to help push the Nittany Lions around.
“The first two sets we just completely crushed them in serve-pass,” Pitt coach Dan Fisher said. “We didn’t after that.”
Then, Washington took it upon herself to fire up the team in the third at a critical stretch. She accounted for five of the team’s points during a 6-1 run on three kills and two blocks, pulling away from an 8-8 tie.
“Haleigh’s an amazing player,” said senior setter Abby Detering, who had 31 assists and 14 digs. “Just giving her the ball, you know nine out of 10 times she’s going to score. Just getting that lead, having her scoring and doing so well, just had the whole team pumped up.”
The Panthers, inspired with the second-set win, felt the momentum swing against them.
“It was definitely a little frustrating,” said Stephanie Williams, who had 12 kills and 10 digs, “but she’s an extremely good player.”
Washington’s play was part of a huge surge in blocking. Penn State finished with a 17-5 advantage in blocks, but got 14 of those denials in the final two sets.
“I wasn’t scared,” Williams said. “I kept going for it high-hands. But, yeah, they’re a good blocking team. (They) take away a lot of space.”
Pitt had a balanced attack with Nika Markovic’s 16 kills and 12 digs, Kayla Lund’s 13 kills and 11 digs, Layne Van Buskirk’s 11 kills, Akeo Kamalani’s 46 assists and 11 digs, and Angela Seman’s 16 digs.
Despite the balanced effort, the Panthers couldn’t get around the Nittany Lions when they needed.
“I thought our size wore them down a little bit at the end,” Rose said. “Haleigh and Tori did a real nice job blocking.”