In a marathon match, UCLA had the legs to sprint to the finish line.
The Nittany Lions could not keep up.
No. 5 UCLA held off No. 10 Penn State 25-23, 22-25, 25-18, 21-25, 15-9 Friday night in the Pac-12/Big Ten Challenge at Rec Hall.
“We just kept telling ourselves, no matter what, we were going to fight,” said Jalen Penrose, who paced the Nittany Lions with 17 kills and seven digs. “We did that and pushed to (sets) four and five.”
Chris Nugent added 14 kills on .417 hitting for Penn State (1-1) and Lee Smith posted 10 kills. Matt Seifert had seven blocks, and Taylor Hammond gave out 27 assists, with Zack Parik delivering 16 assists in the final two sets.
Chambersburg native Mitch Stahl had 12 kills and seven blocks for the Bruins (2-0). The junior got a big cheer from his personal rooting section during pregame introductions, and was emotional after the win.
“When I went out to UCLA, I never knew if I was going to come back east and play,” said Stahl, who wasn’t a Penn State fan growing up like many of his friends. “They announced our junior year (at Chambersburg) that the national championship would be here (in May 2016), that was incentive to get back. … It’s indescribable to play at home again.”
Jake Arnitz led with 13 kills, Micah Ma’a had 10 kills and 26 assists along with three aces, and Hagen Smith gave out 24 assists to go with eight blocks and 10 digs.
“That’s why these preseason matches are so great,” UCLA coach John Speraw said. “We get to evaluate what put pressure on us. They did a great job of that tonight and we’ll learn from it.”
The Nittany Lions hit .149 to the Bruins’ .268, with UCLA holding a 16.5-10.5 blocking lead, 54-49 kills margin and 26-23 advantage in digs.
“We’re not the most physical team, but we’re a team with a really high volleyball IQ and the ability to ball-control well,” said Speraw, who will coach the U.S. at this summer’s Olympics. “I think we demonstrated that in the run we had in the fifth set.”
Penn State had just been solidly thumped in the third set before rallying in the fourth to force the deciding frame. The teams traded points to get to 6-6, and it appeared the balance would continue. But a Lee Smith spike sailed long, and that was the beginning of the end as UCLA closed with nine of the last 11 points.
“All of a sudden we blinked,” Penn State coach Mark Pavlik said. “Their serving outdid our passing, and I just thought we got a little conservative and we played a little bit more, ‘I don’t want to make a bad error so I’m not going to make a good swing.’ We got lost in our responsibilities.”
A Michael Fisher kill off a Penn State blocker iced the match.
“You want to come away with the win,” Penrose said. “But … it’s early in the season and you take away bits and pieces of the things that we didn’t do well and apply it to the next day in practice.”
He wasn’t on the court for the final run because he had rotated to the bench, but the final points thrilled Stahl.
“I was playing against a lot of my old (club) teammates,” Stahl said. “A lot of emotion, just trying to keep it in check when you’re out there on the court. You want to bounce every ball, you want to stuff every ball, you just want to serve every ace.”
The third set belonged to UCLA, as the Bruins hit .545 with just two errors, and it looked like the advantage would continue early in the fourth. But Penn State rallied from five down and posted eight of the final 10 points. UCLA helped with 10 hitting errors in the set, and a clean Nugent cross-court kill forced the fifth frame.
“We started to serve tougher,” Pavlik said. “I think that’s when these guys battled the hardest.”
Notes: The Penn State program also is hosting is annual alumni weekend, and honored better than two dozen former Lions during the match, including former coach and founder of both the men’s and women’s programs, Tom Tait. … Ohio State swept Southern California in the first match. … Penn State travels to defending national champion Loyola and Lewis next Thursday and Saturday.