Friday, December 19, 2014

Penn State volleyball: Nittany Lions edge Stanford in NCAA semis, to meet BYU in finals

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 — The Penn State women’s volleyball team made another statement Thursday night.
The names may change, but it still has one of the best programs in the country.
Behind a career-high 23 kills for Megan Courtney and 16 kills for Ali Frantti, the Nittany Lions upended the No. 1 Stanford Cardinal 25-16, 23-25, 25-22, 25-21 in the NCAA semifinals at Chesapeake Energy Arena.
“We’re thrilled with the victory tonight,” coach Russ Rose said. “We’ve got some great performances. I thought Megan was the offensive star of the night. And Ali really battled and did a great job.”
It sends fifth-seeded Penn State to the title match at 7:30 p.m. Saturday as it looks for the program’s seventh crown, which would break the tie for the most in NCAA history with Stanford, and the sixth title in the last eight years.
“I’ve never played in a national championship,” said Frantti, who was named the AVCA National Freshman of the Year on Wednesday. “So I think that’s pretty cool I get to experience that my freshman year.”
After their 19th straight win, the Nittany Lions (34-3) will face a surprise in the finals after Brigham Young became the first unseeded team to reach the title match, upending Texas in four sets in the first semifinal.
Stanford was trying to reach the finals for the 15th time in its program history. Penn State is there for the 10th time.
Courtney put down her career-high kill total on 56 swings with just five errors to hit .321, adding 16 digs and five blocks.
“I just saw holes and my team was calling wherever the shot was open,” Courtney told ESPN. “I just said, “OK, they’re listening, they know what’s going on so I’m just going to hit where they’re telling me to.’”
While the first set was her hottest, the junior did not cool off the whole match with her career-high swing count.
“It’s really important,” said setter Micha Hancock of having an outside hitter on fire right from the start of the match. “It’s nice to know you can chuck the ball outside and someone’s out there putting the ball down.”
Nia Grant posted seven blocks, Micha Hancock gave out 55 assists but struggled a little from the service line with five errors in her return home to Oklahoma, and Dominique Gonzalez picked up 23 digs. Freshman Haleigh Washington also put down six kills and Lacey Fuller had a dozen digs.
The Cardinal (33-2) were paced by 13 kills from Brittany Howard, 10 kills each for Jordan Burgess and Merete Lutz and nine for Inky Ajanaku. Madi Bugg gave out 47 assists and Kyle Gilbert had 18 digs.
Penn State finished hitting .279 while Stanford hit just .207 — a season low for the Cardinal — with the Lions posting a 10-6 blocking advantage and a 65-52 lead in kills.
The Penn State hitters were on fire in the first set, especially Courtney and Frantti, as the Lions hit .471 with no unforced hitting errors.
“She had a good rhythm tonight,” Rose said of Courtney. “(She) took some great swings. Had a lot of confidence. She took a couple of swings I’m sure she’d like to take back. But she plays the full game. She’s our best volleyball IQ individual. And the expectations are really high for her.”
The Cardinal also had some passing trouble to slow their offense.
The Nittany Lions cooled off in both their serving and passing in the second set, and got into a deep hole at 21-14. But Penn State rallied with a strong service run for Kendall Pierce and had the frame knotted at 22-22. Stanford finally stopped the bleeding, however, and a Burgess kill finished the set and evened the match.
It was just the second set Penn State had dropped since Oct. 17 in a 3-2 win against Purdue.
Stanford led most of the third set before a four-point run put Penn State ahead. Consecutive kills for Grant, and kills for Frantti and Hancock, delivered the points. With the Lions serving for set point, a spectacular diving dig by Gonzalez kept the point alive, and Bugg ticked the net on a joust above the net to give the Lions the clinching point.
The Nittany Lions took control of the fourth set with a 4-1 run, highlighted by a Courtney ace to go up 18-15. Stanford rallied to pull within 21-20, but never evened the frame. A kill from Washington got them set point, and the Nittany Lions had a win when a Lutz spike sailed long.
Despite dropping the second set as the team could not sustain the offensive run it showed in the first set, the Nittany Lions showed plenty of fire to pull out a fifth straight NCAA tournament win over the Cardinal.
“I think Penn State’s one of the hardest-working teams in the country,” Courtney told ESPN. “Coach (Rose) is on us every single day.”
BYU 3, Texas 1
Led by the powerful 1-2 combination of Jennifer Hamson and Alexa Gray, the Cougars head to their first NCAA title match after stunning second-seeded Texas 25-23, 25-16, 17-25, 26-24.
The 6-foot-7 Hamson posted 22 kills, 10 digs and seven blocks, while Gray had 19 kills on .421 hitting for BYU (30-4). Tambre Nobles added 11 kills and 12 digs in the team’s 12th straight win.
Texas (27-3) got 14 kills and six blocks from Chiaka Ogbogu, nine kills from Haley Eckerman and six kills on .100 hitting for former Nittany Lion Paulina Prieto Cerame.

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