Sunday, December 22, 2013

PUT A RING ON IT

Lions capture sixth national championship


Penn State players cut the net after they beat Wisconsin in an NCAA college volleyball tournament championship final Saturday, Dec. 21, 2013, in Seattle. Penn State won the championship in four games. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

For the fifth time in seven seasons, Penn State reigned as victors of the college volleyball world, defeating Wisconsin, (25-19, 26-24, 20-25, 25-23) on Saturday in Seattle.
It's the sixth championship in Nittany Lions' history and first since 2010 when the current seniors, including Deja McClendon, Katie Slay and Ariel Scott, were freshmen.
But it's the first for junior setter Micha Hancock.
As the confetti rained down on the players celebrating on KeyArena's court in a mosh of white, tears streamed down the face of Hancock. One year ago, she found herself injured in the semifinals, stranded from the bench to watch Oregon sweep the Lions.
On Saturday night, Rose said he went up to her in the fourth set and asked Hancock if she wanted to take the gamble and continue jump serving.
"And sometimes the players swear at the coaches," Rose added as Hancock found herself in one of the moments athletes say they live for.
Down 23-22, Hancock was behind the service line with the game in her hands, ready to jump serve.
"I didn't want it to go five sets," Hancock said after the game. 
Like she has done time and time again, the Edmond, Okla. native did not falter. Instead, Hancock helped rally three straight points for the Lions that ultimately capped off with a McClendon kill.
And after a 33-2 regular season and a journey through the postseason, the Lions could finally call themselves champions.
"A lot of people have said it's the best feeling in the world," Hancock said. "It really is."
Unlike No. 3 Washington, the team Penn State downed to reach the championship match, the No. 12 Badgers challenged Penn State consistently early on.
Just like Washington on Thursday night, Wisconsin came out with the hot hand offensively. At one time, the underdog seed had a .850 hitting percentage to propel to an early 8-6 lead in the first set.
That lead did not last as Penn State's offense came alive to have 18 kills in the first set. Just like the finish, the Lions had a 5-0 scoring run under Micha Hancock serving, who had two aces in a row.
Hancock remained a constant threat for Penn State pushing the Lions to a 20-15 lead that led to a 25-19 victory in the first set. Hancock finished with 48 assists and three aces, and terrorized the Badgers throughout. 

"I just don't think that we could convert off of Micha's serves," Wisconsin outside hitter Deme Morales said. "They were just a couple of sporadic plays and we couldn't control them."
But Penn State couldn't carry that same success in the second set. While the Lions did survive the set, they almost let a 11-5 lead slip out of their hands as Wisconsin rallied to tie the game at 15.
The two teams went back and forth until an Ariel Scott killed put Penn State up, 2-0, going into intermission. Scott's kill was one of 21 kills for her on the night with a .291 attacking percentage.
But Wisconsin found something in that second set as the Badgers exploited the Lions' offense in game three. Neither team hit well, but Penn State hit worse.
The Lions hit .029 for the game with eight attacking errors compared to only nine kills. That combination ultimately led to Wisconsin to win its first game against Penn State this season in three meetings, 25-20.
Wisconsin appeared destined to have its Cinderella run continue in the fourth set after jumping out to a 10-7 lead. But Penn State battled, trying to break through the Badgers' tenacious defense.
"I just keep at it," Scott said. "Even if they're digging me, I don't get discouraged, and still ask for the ball."
Coming into Saturday's match, Wisconsin coach Kelly Sheffield stressed the importance of defense and while it took till the fourth set for them to really come alive, they did.
"They believed that we were going to go to game five," Sheffield said. "Even in the locker room, I'm in there and that team was locked in...They didn't need a pep talk."

The Badgers ended the match with 28 block assists and 73 digs. Despite holding Penn State to a .173 attacking percentage in the fourth set, the Lions still answered the Wisconsin's go-ahead leads.
That is until Hancock went behind the service line for one more time this season. And just like every time she stepped up to serve in front of a Rec Hall crowd, she ended with a boom.
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