A good serve is always one of the best ways to deliver a volleyball victory — and Penn State administered a lesson on the subject to Missouri on Friday afternoon.
“If you don’t serve tough, you’re going to be at the mercy of the other team’s offense,” Nittany Lion coach Russ Rose said after his 97th NCAA postseason win.
The Nittany Lions had the Tigers off-balance most of match and practically dominated from end to end of their 25-17, 25-18, 25-19 NCAA regional semifinal win inside the comfortable confines of Rec Hall.
Top-seeded Penn State (32-1) advances to a regional final — volleyball’s version of the Elite 8 — for the first time since 2014, when the program won its last national title. The regional final is set to begin 8 p.m. Saturday against Michigan State, who beat Illinois in Friday’s second contest 25-23, 18-25, 25-17, 29-27.
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“We knew we were going to have to play well to advance,” Rose said, referring to Friday’s victory. “We hit really well. I thought our serving was good; we had some lapses in passing, but I thought we had a good game.”
Riding a 22-match win streak, the Nittany Lions head into their 15th regional final in the last 22 years and their 18th overall.
Penn State’s big seniors, who were freshmen on the last title team, led the way. Simone Lee finished with 15 kills and eight digs, Ali Frantti had 11 kills, Haleigh Washington recorded nine kills, Abby Detering registered 10 digs and 13 assists, and Bryanna Weiskircher added 24 assists. The Lions hit .432 for the match, with Washington and Lee each hitting .500 and Frantti posting a.455 performance.
Melanie Crow paced the Tigers (22-12) with a dozen kills in the program’s fourth regional appearance. Courtney Eckenrode gave out 20 assists and Riley Sents picked up 10 digs.
“We weren’t getting the same quality of swings in transition,” said Missouri coach Wayne Kreklow, who earned his 600th coaching win last weekend. “If you don’t continually attack them, they just tee it up and you’re trying to defend everybody.”
Penn State’s service domination didn’t show in the aces, with a mere 6-5 advantage led by two each for Detering and Weiskircher, but they made only one error from the line, delivered a variety of serves and had the Tigers constantly guessing.
“The service pressure we had was really important,” said Washington, who also had an ace. “It kind of caught Missouri off-guard so it made it easier us to put the block out in front of them.”
The pressure forced Missouri into a .212 hitting performance weighed down by 18 errors.
“That was probably one of the toughest-serving teams we’ve seen all year,” said Missouri fifth-year senior Kira Larson, who had eight kills. “They knew where to put the ball and put it there every single time. As passers it was really difficult. They were moving us all around.”
The Nittany Lions exerted control from the beginning, making just one error on .565 hitting with four of their aces in the first set alone. The second set was more of the same, with Lee leading the way with six of her kills while the Tiger errors started to pile up.
Missouri put up a much tougher fight in the third, leading 11-7 before Penn State registered 10 of the next 12 points behind more big swings from Lee and Washington. The highlight play of the match was a long rally with one diving dig after another from the Lions to sustain the point before the ball popped up to Washington for a rocket kill to tie it 11-11, and Missouri would never again lead. One final Tiger hitting error took care of the final point, with the celebration delayed a little by an official review, with the Penn State sweep leaving the team a win away from a semifinal trip to Kansas City, Mo.
“It is the final game that we’ll play in Rec Hall (Saturday),” Washington said. “We’re hoping to come out with a positive result and end our career here on a high note.”