Much like the season as a whole, the Penn State women’s volleyball team had a little trouble for a stretch, but got it right in the end.
Behind a balanced offense, the Nittany Lions held off Dayton 25-17, 13-25, 25-14, 25-17 Saturday night at Rec Hall in the NCAA second round.
“It’s never a given,” Penn State coach Russ Rose said. “It’s always hard. Every match has its challenges and this one is no different. I’m really thrilled with our effort tonight, how we competed, especially after playing as poorly as we did in the second game.”
It’s always hard. Every match has its challenges and this one is no different. I’m really thrilled with our effort tonight, how we competed, especially after playing as poorly as we did in the second game.
Penn State (28-5) will meet Hawaii (28-1) in the regional semifinals next Friday night in Des Moines, Iowa, reaching the third round for a 13th consecutive season. It also marks the 14 th straight NCAA tournament victory for the two-time defending champions.
Fellow Big Ten survivors Minnesota and Illinois will battle in the other match.
Ali Frantti and Aiyana Whitney led the way with 14 kills each for the seventh-seeded Lions, while Megan Courtney put down eight kills and Haleigh Washington and Heidi Thelen put down seven kills apiece.
“It’s a good thing to mix the ball around,” Thelen said. “If you keep setting the same person every time, then the block on the other side will just commit to that person.”
Bryana Weiskircher ran that offense, which hit .369 for the night, by giving out 46 assists to go with four blocks each for her and Washington. Courtney also collected 15 digs and Kendall Pierce added 13.
In seeing the nation’s longest win streak end at 25 straight, the Flyers (27-6) got 16 kills and four blocks from Amber Erhahon, 15 kills from Alaina Turner, 45 assists from Jane Emmenecker and 16 digs from Janna Krafka. Dayton, outblocked 9-5, hit .209.
The Nittany Lions blitzed through the first set, winning eight of the last 11 points, capped by Heidi Thelen and Courtney teaming up for a block.
But the Flyers turned the tables right from the start of the second, earning the first five points, going up 11-3 after a block on Courtney and never letting the frame get closer than five from there. Eight Penn State errors and some bad passing didn’t help, but Dayton dominated with a .556 hitting performance.
“When somebody hits .556, it’s not so much what you’re not doing, you can’t stop them,” Rose said. “I thought our serving was a little too easy.”
The easy serves allowed the Flyer offense to hum with efficiency.
“It all started with our pass,” said Erhahon of a Dayton offense that picked apart the Nittany Lion defense in the frame. “I felt like out pass was really good during the second and I felt like it put us in a lot of in-system plays which got our offense balanced and got me some one-on-ones, and pin attackers one-on-ones.”
The Flyers were wondering if an upset was brewing. Penn State has only lost three NCAA matches in Rec Hall in the tournament’s 35-year history.
“It was just like a thought, ‘We could play with these guys,’” said Jill Loirs, who had nine kills. “We could possibly win this game, but you never want to go in thinking you’ve already won when you’ve only won one set.”
But the Nittany Lions’ top performances returned as quickly as it left for the third set, with Washington (4 kills), Courtney (4), Thelen (4) and Frantti (5) all finding success with their swings. A Thelen kill wrapped up a set in which the team hit .581.
“I just did what I could, swung where it was open,” Thelen said. “I felt pretty good.”
The Nittany Lions wrapped up the fourth with a 9-2 closing run, including a 3-point run from Whitney with two blocks and a kill on an overpass. A Dayton swing sailed long to end the match and the Flyers’ season.