Sunday, December 21, 2014

Nittany Lions sweep BYU for NCAA title No. 7

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 — The trophy stays in State College.
The Penn State women’s volleyball dynasty rolled through another opponent and locked up a national championship Saturday night.
Behind 11 kills each for Megan Courtney and Aiyana Whitney, the Nittany Lions defended their title and won their NCAA-record seventh overall with a 25-21, 26-24, 25-14 sweep of Brigham Young at Chesapeake Energy Arena.
“I thought we had a great game plan,” coach Russ Rose said. “I thought the players worked really hard at executing it, and we feel great about tonight’s result.”
It marked the sixth crown in eight seasons for Penn State (36-3), which won its 20th straight match, dropping just two sets through the last 19 of those wins.
“It’s such a great thing,” said Rose, whose seven titles as coach is more than anyone else in Division I, as are his 1,161 career wins. “I don’t think it’s — we’re not trying to hoard them. We’re like everybody else. We’re trying to do the best we can.”
Courtney also posted 14 digs and five blocks on her way to earning Most Outstanding Player of the tournament. Saturday’s performance came on the heels of a career-high 23 kills, 16 digs and five blocks in the semifinals against No. 1 Stanford on Thursday.
“I just stuck to the game plan that all my coaching staff put hours and hours and hours of work in,” Courtney said, “and then my teammates just giving me the great balls to set, telling me where to hit. It’s all to them.”
Courtney, Whitney and National Freshman of the Year Ali Frantti, who put down six kills, were a tough matchup for the Cougars.
“(Courtney is an) outstanding outside hitter,” BYU coach Shawn Olmstead said. “They’ve got great pin hitters. We felt the match was going to come down to that. We felt comfortable with our pin hitters. Theirs were a little better than ours tonight, just overall.”
All-American Nia Grant added nine kills and four blocks, Haleigh Washington also had four blocks, AVCA National Player of the Year Micha Hancock gave out 36 assists to go with one ace and Dominique Gonzalez had a match-high 16 digs to go with one ace — a serve that ticked the net and fell to the floor for the final point of the night.
BYU, which was in the finals for the first time, was seeking to become the first unseeded team to capture the title. The team had earned wins over four other seeded teams, including No. 2 Texas in the semifinals, to become the first unseeded team to make the title match.
The Cougars (30-5) were paced by 6-foot-7 All-American Jennifer Hamson’s 14 kills, but the senior right-side hitter also had 11 errors and hit .071. Alexa Gray added nine kills and Amy Boswell and Tambre Nobles had seven kills each.
Penn State hit .233 to BYU’s .134, had a 42-38 lead in kills and also had a 10-7 advantage in blocks on the nation’s top blocking team.
It was Hancock’s ability to spread the ball around and keep the Cougar blockers off balance that helped keep the Nittany Lion offense humming.
“She did move the ball around better than we did,” Olmstead said. “I felt — I felt we were in good spots. I just — I thought their hitters just really, really took quality swings. They hit high with range.”
One key to beat the block was Courtney finding a seam between two blockers time and time again, and Hancock setting fast balls to the right side to Whitney or on slides to Grant and Washington.
“That was our game plan,” Hancock said. “So I tried to put some good balls up and so we could attack there right back move the ball around a little bit because they’ve got (Hamson), a pretty big girl. We wanted to try to limit the balls over there and execute our game plan and we did a good job of that.”
Penn State controlled most of the first set, hitting .250 with a 4-2 blocking advantage. A 4-1 run in the middle of the frame put the Nittany Lions in front for good, with kills for Hancock, Washington and a pair from Frantti earning the points. A Courtney kill bounced off the fingertips of a Cougar blocker to end the set.
“I thought our passing was good, allowed (Hancock) to run whoever she wanted,” Courtney said. “And we said that from the beginning whoever wins the serve pass game is going to win.”
It was a lot tougher for the Nittany Lions in the second frame as Gray began to find her swing, Hamson continued to pound the ball into the court and the BYU blockers started to find the Penn State hitters. The Cougars led nearly the entire set, but a cross-court kill for Grant on a slide out to the antenna tied it at 20-20. BYU fought off one set point when Boswell put away a kill on a quick set in the middle, but a Cougar service error gave the Lions another chance, and Hancock and Washington teamed up to stuff Nobles for the 2-0 lead.
The set was dead-even in a number of way statistically, with both teams hitting .267 and matching each other 3-3 in blocks.
The third set quickly became lopsided with an 8-1 run for a 20-9 lead as BYU was held to minus-.028 hitting with nine errors. The contest was at match point after a Hamson swing sailed wide, and Gonzalez’s serve bounced off the net and dropped to the floor in front of a couple Cougar passers to bring on the celebration.
It also was a sweet end to a college career for Hancock, who closed her career less than 20 miles from her hometown with one more ace to leave her NCAA single-season record at 125 and her Penn State career record at 380 — on the day she was due to graduate.
“It’s pretty cool,” she said. “What’s hitting me now is I’m not coming back to play with my girls. I’ve been around it for a long time. They’re like a family to me. So it’s really weird for me right now.”

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