The Penn State women’s volleyball team was one point away from a chance at history.
Instead, it will only be able to watch the national championship match Saturday from afar.
In a slugfest Thursday between two of volleyball’s heaviest hitters, the Nittany Lions fell to Nebraska in five sets (25-18, 23-25, 24-26, 28-26, 15-11) at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo.
“Penn State and Nebraska bring out the best in each other,” Huskers coach John Cook told the media at the arena. “It was going to be an epic match — it was. Everybody should have got their money’s worth.”
The Cornhuskers (31-4) will play either defending champion Stanford or Florida at 9 p.m. in Saturday’s finals, after fighting off one Penn State match point in the fourth set and wrapping up the match on a Kelly Hunter kill, winning a joust on a near-overpass by the Huskers.
“Every single point of this fifth set is the national championship point,” Hunter said of their attitude entering the final frame. “We need to think like that; we need to play like that.”
Nebraska will be seeking its fifth national crown. The Lions (33-2) and Cardinal share the NCAA record with seven apiece.
Nebraska continued its recent supremacy over Penn State, having won the last seven meetings.
“I’m disappointed in the outcome,” Penn State coach Russ Rose said. “I’m not disappointed in the players or the university I work at, but I’m certainly disappointed in the outcome of the match.”
Simone Lee carried a huge load on offense with 18 kills and 15 digs, while Haleigh Washington bounced back from a slow start for 13 kills and six blocks. Ali Frantti and Heidi Thelen added nine kills apiece, with seven blocks for Thelen. Bryanna Weiskircher and Abby Detering delivered 24 and 25 assists, respectively, and Weiskircher also had 18 digs. Kendall White posted 16 digs.
Nebraska saw four players in double figures in kills, led by Mikaela Foecke’s 19 to go with 19 digs. She was followed by Briana Holman’s 13 kills, Jazz Sweet’s 12 kills and Annika Albrecht’s 13 kills and 13 digs. Lauren Stivrins posted nine blocks, Hunter had 47 assists and 23 digs, and Kenzie Maloney had 21 digs. Nebraska had a huge performance from the back line, with a 90-76 advantage in digs.
“That’s a lot of digs,” Cook said. “We have to win serve-blocking defense. We pride ourselves on that. That’s our strength all year.”
The Nittany Lions suffered through unforced errors to give Nebraska 24 free points, including 14 miscues from the service line.
The Huskers also had some troubles, but made up for it by serving 10 aces, including four from Maloney.
The Nittany Lions’ lone match point may have been the turning point of the night. Penn State had already turned back three Nebraska set points in the fourth set, then Thelen and Tori Gorrell teamed up to block Albrecht to go up 26-25. Holman then fired a spike that the Lions dug up, but Detering got tangled with Thelen while running to the net to retrieve the pass, and could not get the ball set to a teammate. Two Husker kills later the match was headed to a fifth frame.
“We clearly had opportunities to win the match, but we didn’t win the match,” Rose said. “So you recognize the efforts of the other guys.”
Penn State had leads of at least three points in each of the first four sets, and had five-point margins in the third and fourth. The Lions also built a 6-4 lead in the fifth, but just like all of the other frames saw Nebraska put together a big run, this time an 8-2 burst to go ahead 12-8. The teams traded points until Hunter’s kill ended the match.
“We had a lot of early leads, but I think we just let those runs get away,” Washington said. “That can’t happen, especially at this level, in this game, in this arena. ... It’s just something we let slip away.”
The Nittany Lions had set major goals for the season and met most of them. They shared the Big Ten title with Nebraska — something the six graduating seniors had not earned in any of their previous three seasons. They also wanted to get the program back to its 13th final four and capture the eighth title. The last box on that list will be empty.
“Certain programs get judged by winning national championships, not just their day-to-day effort,” said Rose, who has more Division I match wins and national titles than any other coach.
“If you finish 33-2 and they don’t look you in the eye because they think you messed it up, I think it’s a rough gig.”