Friday, December 19, 2008

NCAA Volleyball: Penn State holds off valiant NU comeback in 5-set thriller

Published Thursday December 18, 2008

The rally last weekend at Washington defied description.

The comeback attempt on Thursday night simply defied logic.

No, the NCAA-record crowd of 17,430 packed into the Qwest Center wouldn't get to celebrate what could've been the greatest upset in Nebraska history š if not the most unexpected win in the history of college volleyball itself.

But there will be no end to the way the state's diehard fans celebrate these 2008 Huskers.

AP photo/Dave Weaver

Penn State’s Megan Hodge, right, puts a shot over Nebraska’s Amanda Gates (17) and Sydney Anderson (1) during the teams’ NCAA women’s volleyball semifinal Thursday in Omaha, Neb.

Is it possible that a Nebraska loss could rank among the best matches ever witnessed in this volleyball-mad pocket of the Midwest?

If you were one of the lucky souls who saw Penn State's 25-17, 25-18, 15-25, 22-25, 15-11 triumph over the all heart-and-soul Huskers, you'd probably answer that question with an emphatic yes.

"Next week, I'm not sure anybody is going to remember whether we won or lost," Nebraska coach John Cook said. "What they're going to remember is that this team this year wore the Nebraska uniform. I've never had so much fun coaching a match."

The No. 1 Nittany Lions will get the chance to go after their second straight national championship on Saturday when they take on second-ranked Stanford in Omaha. And Thursday's wild victory allowed Penn State to extend its NCAA-record unbeaten streak to 63 straight matches.

But after the 37-0 Nittany Lions stretched their NCAA-record run of consecutive wins in sets to an amazing 111 in a row, that old Nebraska magic that has carried the Huskers so far this year kicked back on into full effect.

Nebraska extended the match in set three š becoming the first team this year to take a game off a Nittany Lions club that smashed its way into uncharted territory by sweeping its first 36 matches.

The Huskers had so much fun doing it, they came right back in the fourth set and pushed the unbeatable giant to the limit.

Nebraska chopped and chopped and chopped in the fifth set until it had a 10-8 lead. But then, only five points away from sealing the impossible win, Penn State answered with a 7-1 run and refused to fall down.

"We had the chance to finish it at the end, but Penn State's a great team," Cook said. "There's a reason they're the defending champions, and they showed that in game five."

Cook's amazing 2008 team ends the season with a record of 31-3. During a year in which the Huskers were supposed to fall back down to earth, the complete opposite occurred and the program only soared to new heights.

One season after losing two national players of the year and four All-Americans in all, they weren't supposed to be in the hunt for a Big 12 title š let alone have a chance to make it to Omaha's final four.

And the team's three homegrown senior captains š Lincoln East graduate Rachel Schwartz, Amanda Gates out of Columbus and Jordan Larson from Hooper š will leave Nebraska with a school-record 127 wins over their four years and a legacy that will be tough for any future class of Huskers to beat.

"We had so many things going on, but we found a way to be great š and we never gave up," Larson said. "There were times we could've given up very easily tonight, but this team has heart, and we weren't done.

"We left it all out there."

The Huskers š like so many other teams had done this season until finally being overcome by Penn State's intense pressure š hung tough for much of set one against the Nittany Lions.

A rocket kill by Tara Mueller gave Nebraska an 8-7 advantage and brought the Qwest Center crowd to its feet. Later, a huge solo block by Larson cut Penn State's lead to 14-13 and made the arena shake and shutter with noise.
But the Nittany Lions never blinked and came back to close out the set with an icy confidence. Penn State scored 11 of the last 15 points, a surge that included four kills by Megan Hodge.

Set two started about as well as the Huskers could've hoped, and Nebraska raced out to a 6-2 lead behind a kill apiece from Jordan Wilberger and Gates, a pair of putaways by Larson and another big block off the hands of both Gates and Larson.

Penn State slowly and surely chipped away at that lead and would go up 14-13 when Arielle Wilson and Blair Brown teamed up to roof Larson's attack. That sparked the Nittany Lions to a 9-3 run that easily staked the defending NCAA champs to a 2-0 advantage.

Heading into intermission, Penn State was outhitting Nebraska .403-.169 š including a whopping .444-.129 in set two.

If the Nittany Lions thought the audience was loud in the first two sets, however, they hadn't heard anything yet.

Nebraska again had the upper hand early in set three š and this time the Huskers sent their fans over the moon by making it count. Larson moved her school-record career ace total to 186 on a jump serve that put the Huskers ahead 6-2. A kill by Lindsey Licht would make it 11-6 Nebraska, and an ace by Schwartz put the Huskers up 15-8 heading into the TV timeout.

Only three points later, a block by Sydney Anderson and Gates gave Nebraska a 17-9 lead and forced Penn State coach Russ Rose to call his first time out. A long rally that featured an amazing save by Larson was polished off by a Mueller's kill, then Hodge's attack error forced Rose to burn his second T.O. with NU ahead 19-9.

An emphatic solo stuff by Gates wrapped up Nebraska's astounding 11-1 run. A Wilberger kill would make it 24-11 š making the Huskers only the second team this year to reach set point against the Nittany Lions.

Penn State scored on three straight rallies to delay the Qwest Center celebration, but finally a net violation set off a wild outburst throughout the arena. The Huskers hit an eye-popping .407 in the third set while the Nittany Lions attacked at just a .103 clip.

The arena P.A. system blared the theme music from "Rocky" prior to the start of set four, and this miracle of a heavyweight showdown somehow ended up going the distance.

Trailing 14-10, Nebraska punched its way back into the set with an exhilirating 6-0 run . The Huskers didn't stop swinging and closed out their 25-22 win on a kill by Larson. And suddenly, the only team in NCAA history to go through a regular season without dropping a set found itself in a race-to-15, winner-take-all, set-five battle.

After Penn State took a 6-3 lead to open the fifth, three straight kills by Mueller knotted it 6-all, and another blast by the sophomore made it 8-7 NU at the change over.

But after Licht's kill gave Nebraska a 10-8 advantage, the Nittany Lions exhibited the kind of resolve that helped them survive a five-set war against Stanford in the 2007 NCAA final. Penn State kept its perfect season alive by scoring on seven of the last eight rallies, and Hodge ended the match with her 23rd kill of the night.

The red-clad crowd didn't get to exhale the cheers of joy it wanted to unleash after the 133-minute marathon, but the emotionally drained fans still offered up a deafening ovation that carried the Huskers off the court for the last time this year.

"I thought we competed hard. I was pleased," Rose said. "It's a good opponent with an incredibly tough venue to play in with 17,000 people. We feel very fortunate to have the ability to come back, play well and win the match."

Larson, the only Husker to ever average more than three kills and three digs for a career, turned in her 55th double-double at NU with 17 kills and 18 digs. Mueller finished with 15 kills, Licht added 13 more, and Gates' last match with the Huskers was highlighted by nine kills on .467 hitting and a match-high five blocks.

"It's been an exciting journey these last four years," Larson said. "I'm glad to end my career at the Qwest, in Nebraska. This is where I started, and this is where I ended. I was just a small town girl happy to be at the university. It's been a big deal."

Nicole Fawcett had a match-high 24 kills for Penn State, which now will try to lock up college volleyball's first back-to-back titles in five seasons. The last team to repeat as champs was Southern California, which won it all in 2002 and 2003.

"Nebraska is a great opponent," said Nittany Lions senior Christa Harmotto. "In those situations, that's what playing in these types of environments is all about. I thought we came together as a team. We're excited to play for the national championship."

• Contact the writer: 444-1207,


Set for a repeat

Nittany Lions down Huskers in five sets to meet Stanford in final

By Gordon Brunskill
Centre Daily Times
December 19, 2008

OMAHA, Neb. — Never before in the history of the NCAA tournament had a team rallied from two sets down to make it into the championship match.

Much to the Penn State women’s volleyball team’s dismay, it nearly happened twice in the same night to spoil the Nittany Lions dream season.

Instead, Penn State dug deep, found whatever it was that they never had to find before this season, and are still on track for their second straight title.

Penn State's Arielle Wilson, top right, and teammates celebrate after winning the 5th set of an NCAA college women's volleyball semifinal match against Nebraska in Omaha, Neb. on Thursday, Dec 18, 2008.
(AP Photo/Dave Weaver)

Penn State ripped off seven of the final eight points of the match to dispatch an inspired Nebraska team in five games (25-17, 25-18, 15-25, 22-25, 15-11) in the national semifinals at Omaha’s Qwest Center before an NCAA-record crowd of 17,430.

“We had a lot of confidence in ourselves and we had to get onto that roll that we had,” said Nicole Fawcett, who had a match-high 24 kills and two big service aces. “We lost that and had to get back to believing that we could do it.”

The victory gives Penn State a chance at becoming the sixth team in history to grab back-to-back crowns, and the team gets to do it against the same team it faced in last year’s championship.

In the first semifinal, Stanford became the first team in NCAA history to rally from two sets down to advance to a final with a 3-2 win over Texas.

The title match will be played at 8 p.m. Saturday.

Unlike much of the season, the Nittany Lions relied heavily on outside hitters Fawcett and Megan Hodge, who had 23 kills. The pair combined for 113 of the team’s 151 swings.

“Did I look tired?” Hodge asked. “I felt OK. You have so much adrenaline, there are 17,000 people, tired or not you’re going to get through it because of the situation.”

Blair Brown added eight and Christa Harmotto had seven to go with four blocks. Alisha Glass also posted four blocks along with a season-high 60 assists and Roberta Holehouse had a match-high 22 digs.

Jordan Larson led the Cornhuskers (31-3) with 17 kills, Tara Mueller added 13 including some big ones in the latter half of the match and Lindsey Licht had 13 kills.

Amanda Gates led the night with five blocks and Sydney Anderson gave away 51 assists.

Maybe it’s not a perfect season anymore, but it still could turn out to be the best in NCAA history as the team captured its 63rd consecutive win.

The Nittany Lions (37-0) finally surrendered their first set of the season, ending their NCAA-record streak at 111 consecutive sets won. The streak dated back to Game 5 of last year’s championship match against the Cardinal.

“I thought the crowd made such an energy boost to Nebraska that they were always going to be in the match,” head coach Russ Rose said. “You really needed to sieze control and put them away. We did that well the first couple of games.”

That match looked eerily familiar to Thursday’s contest after Penn State watched a 2-0 lead disappear and trailed in the deciding set before finding that mysterious switch.

It looked disastrous when Brown tipped the ball into the net to give Nebraska a 10-8 lead. But then it was time for Fawcett to take command, putting down a kill and then stepping to the service line to take back the momentum.

“We needed to make sure that we weren’t going to give up points and really rely on our blocking,” Fawcett said. “At the end we really were focused. The block was able to put up a stable block and we had some great digs. It (was) the combination of keeping it going and keeping the momentum our way was really important.”

Hodge and Wilson teamed up to block Licht and Larson sent a spike long to put Penn State up for good. Fawcett then ripped in a serve that the Huskers could not contain, Hodge hammered a crosscourt kill and another Husker error finally gave Penn State match point. “Penn State forces you to play at such a high level,” Cook said. “I told our team they’re going to dare us to be great. If you just give them an inch they’re going to make you pay.”

Larson stalled the roll briefly with a kill, but Hodge hammered down one last kill to leave the Nittany Lions jumping like kangaroos around the court.

Penn State certainly could not have asked for a better way to start the night.

The team was running its offense with it usual wicked efficiency, pounding down a .403 hitting percentage over the first two sets. Fawcett polished off both sets with clean crosscourt put-aways.

“There were times in this game where we could have given up very easily,” Larson said. “This team has heart and we weren’t done. I think we left it all out there.”

Then, the wheels started coming off, with passing errors and service errors piling up like the snow outside the Qwest Center and the life breathed into the packed arena became deafening.

The third set was nothing but misery for the Nittany Lions from end to end. The team never led a point and endured an 11-1 Nebraska run to go down 22-9. The team hit .103 in the set, by far their worst performance of the season.

“(We were) rattled in that they had a big momentum shift and the crowd was on their side,” Glass said. “It was a really loud environment. But (we had) to be able to rally back and play our game again. We got into their mode and their type of style of play.”

Penn State looked mad and ready to put the match away in the fourth set, breaking to a 14-10 lead, but the Huskers broke off the next six points with two kills and a block from Larson, an Amanda Gates kill and Gates and Sydney Anderson teaming up to block Wilson. The set stayed tight until Nebraska got three of the last four points, two of which were Larson kills to set up the final-frame dramatics.

The win sets up a Penn State- Stanford championship match for the fourth time. The Nittany Lions have taken the last two.

“We never really cared about losing games because the goal was to win the match,” Rose said. “Stanford showed a lot of fight in coming back down 2-0 to Texas. We’ve had great matches with Stanford.”

Stanford 3, Texas 2

The Cardinal rallied from a deep 2-0 hole, looking shaky in the first two sets before finding their game in the third. Stanford took the match 20-25, 18-25, 25-15, 25-22, 15-13.

“I don’t think we were going to let it end like that,” said Stanford’s Cynthia Barboza, who finished with 19 kills and 16 digs after not having a single kill in the first set. “We know how to fight back ---digging out of holes.”

Whatever the Cardinal was doing wrong in the first two sets, namely, having trouble passing and tracking down the Longhorns’ powerful swings, they found those skills in the third set by taking a quick 9-3 lead and never letting go.

“We kind of got hit in the mouth in Game 3,” said Texas coach Jerritt Elliott, whose team had 12 more digs and 10 more kills in the match. “We didn’t execute and it gave them life. That was a tough Pac-10 team and they’re used to being here.”

After the match was knotted at 2-2, the Cardinal again was in an early hole but rallied. Tied at 9-9, Alix Klineman put down a big kill, then scored a solo block on Ashley Engle for an 11-9 lead that would never be lost. Barboza finally put the match away by hammering a kill off the Texas block to finish the win and put the Cardinal in the championship match for a third straight season.

Stanford hit .436 over the final three sets, with only six errors, against eight errors in the first two sets.

“That’s a hard way to lose when you’re so close you can taste it,” Elliott said.

Klineman finished with 20 kills and hit .358, Foluke Akinradewo added 17 kills on .452 hitting to go with a match-high six blocks and two aces, Cassidy Lichtman gave out 57 assists, Gabi Ailes had 18 digs and Erin Waller also had two aces.

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