Penn State Volleyball

Penn State women’s volleyball books final four spot with sweep of Michigan State

Penn State outside hitters Simone Lee, left, and Nia Reed hug in celebration after beating Michigan State in the NCAA Regional Championship Saturday, Dec. 9, 2017 at Rec Hall.
Penn State outside hitters Simone Lee, left, and Nia Reed hug in celebration after beating Michigan State in the NCAA Regional Championship Saturday, Dec. 9, 2017 at Rec Hall.

The Penn State women’s volleyball team blocked Michigan State’s final four hopes Saturday night.

The Nittany Lions put up a brick wall on the Spartans.

Top-seeded Penn State swatted away Michigan State 25-23, 25-17, 28-26 Saturday night in the NCAA Regional Championship at Rec Hall.

The Nittany Lions (33-1), winners of 23 straight, booked the 13th final four berth in program history, and the first since they won their last title in 2014. They will face Nebraska in the semifinals Thursday at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo. Penn State won the fifth of its seven titles in 2010 in Kansas City.

“It’s really exciting and it’s my last season, so I’m happy to spend these moments with my teammates,” senior right-side hitter Heidi Thelen said. “We want to win so we’re going to work hard.”

The Cornhuskers, who shared the Big Ten regular-season title with the Nittany Lions and beat Kentucky in four sets Saturday, knocked Penn State out of last year’s tournament in the regional semifinals.

Florida and either Stanford or Texas, who played late Saturday on the West Coast, will battle in the other semifinal.

Penn State had a huge blocking night, with a 14-8 advantage in stuffs, paced by 10 from Haleigh Washington, three of them solo denials.

“Haleigh blocked really well tonight,” said Thelen, who added four stuffs. “We did a good job keying in, working with (volunteer assistant coach) Dennis (Hohenshelt) on what we were actually taking, doing that and sticking to the game plan.”

The Spartans were frustrated at times by the obstacle.

“They’re one of the better blocking teams, for sure, in the country,” said Autumn Bailey, whose 18 kills led everyone. “They’re going to get their blocks and that will help them going forward.

Penn State was paced by Simone Lee’s 12 kills and 10 digs on her way to earning regional Most Outstanding Player honors. They also got nine kills from Thelen and eight for Ali Frantti. Kendall White delivered 18 dig. Abby Detering and Bryanna Weiskircher distributed 21 and 19 assists, respectively.

Washington, however, did have an off night hitting. The nation’s leader in hitting percentage had just five kills and two errors to hit .176, and was held to just one kill and minus-.100 hitting over the first two frames.

“They committed two people to her quite a bit and it opened up other opportunities,” Rose said. “The best thing about Haleigh is that she didn’t care that she didn’t have kills because she was blocking well and the team was winning.”

Holly Toliver added nine kills and 10 digs for Michigan State (24-9), playing in the regional finals for the first time in program history. Alyssa Garvelink posted six blocks, Jayme Cox picked up 17 digs and Rachel Minarick gave out 34 assists to give her 4,581 for her career to jump into the top spot in program history.

The Spartans had an 18-14 lead in the opening set before Penn State ignited on a 7-1 run, buoyed by two Frantti kills and back-to-back Washington solo blocks. Michigan State never again led, and Lee wrapped it up by bouncing a kill off a Spartan into the bleachers.

Washington then stacked up her blocks in the second set, posting seven to inspire an even louder roar from the home crowd. The Lions blasted off to a 12-4 lead and never let Michigan State closer than five the rest of the set.

Michigan State figured out a way around the Penn State block in the third, but Penn State’s offense was still firing away and appeared ready to lock up the victory at 20-15 in the set. But the Spartans fought back, holding off two match points to knot the frame at 24-24. The Nittany Lions then denied a pair of Michigan State set points and ran off the final three points on a Thelen kill, Thelen and Gorrell teaming up on a block and a Spartan spike sailing long to end the match.

“We always want to win in Rec (Hall) and we want to win in general,” said Thelen, one of seven seniors on the team. “Winning our last game here, my last game ever in this gym, it was something truly amazing.”

Gordon Brunskill: 814-231-4608, @GordonCDT