If Wisconsin, the Cinderella story of the NCAA volleyball Final Four, can beat the No. 1 seed, what can prevent the Badgers from beating the No. 2 seed in the national championship match Saturday at KeyArena (6:30 p.m., ESPN2)?
“They’re the hot team right now,” said Russ Rose, coach of second-seeded Penn State. “It’s a number of factors that make them really good, and you’re going to have to match how hard they play if you have a hope of winning.”
The 12th-seeded Badgers (28-9), guided by spirited first-year coach Kelly Sheffield, are the lowest seed to reach a national championship match. Stanford, at No. 11, won the title game in 2004 after defeating seventh-seeded Washington 3-1 in a national semifinal. Stanford beat Minnesota 3-0 in the final.
Wisconsin shocked top-seeded Texas, the defending national champion, 3-1 in a semifinal Thursday with great defense (72 digs) and energetic all-around play. Could the emotional rush of such an unexpected win diminish the intensity of a young team that starts just one senior?
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“I think I’ve got a group that’s really, really locked in, a group that’s really hungry,” Sheffield said. “I don’t think they’re satisfied at all.
“The depth of their hunger is surprising some people. We got in today and they seem like the same group that they’ve been the past few weeks. We all know the opportunity that’s in front of us. We’re not pretending that’s not there.”
Wisconsin has reached the title match once before, in 2000, and lost 3-2 to Nebraska.
“They’re relaxed, confident,” Sheffield said of his players. “They’re hungry. That can be a potent mixture.”
Penn State (33-2), meanwhile, unleashed a maelstrom of attacks in the late semifinal against Washington, overpowering the third-seeded Huskies in swift order, 25-14, 25-13, 25-16, while hitting .488 (46 kills and just five errors).
The Badgers faced the withering attack of Penn State’s Ariel Scott (10 kills vs. UW) and Deja McClendon (11 kills) twice this season in Big Ten play, losing both in straight sets. Can it be any different this time?
“We know that we’re going to have to step up our defensive play,” said Wisconsin libero Annemarie Hickey, the team’s lone senior starter who recorded a match-high 21 digs against a tall, athletic Texas offense. Penn State presents a nearly identical challenge.
“They’re just as physical as Texas was last night, so it’s going to be a big part to our game plan,” Hickey said. “We’re just going to have to execute that and give all the effort we can to really dig out these balls and keep the defensive mentality in our minds.”
Rose, in his 35th season, will be coaching in his ninth national championship match and will aim for his sixth title. His squads strung together 109 consecutive victories during a streak of four straight championships from 2007 to 2010.
Logic favors the Nittany Lions, the Big Ten champs, in their third meeting this season with the conference’s fourth-place team. Rose offered an antidote to complacency.
“I’ll point out two things,” he said. “They beat the No. 1 seed yesterday, and two years ago at Wisconsin they beat us. So I don’t think there would be any possibility of us not taking them seriously or looking past them when the players are well beyond that position. They know Wisconsin’s playing great.”
The match features a matchup of exceptional setters, Penn State senior Micha Hancock and 6-foot-2 freshman Lauren Carlini of Wisconsin. Carlini makes defenders uneasy because of her willingness to attack (she had four kills on 15 swings against Texas), and Hancock, No. 2 nationally in aces per set, repeatedly knocked the Huskies’ offense out of sync with her forceful left-handed jump serve.
Hancock, 5-11, is also an offensive threat, scoring five kills on eight setter dumps against Washington.
“She could be a hitter in a lot of conferences,” Rose said. “She’s got a terrific arm.”
• Saturday’s title match is just the third in the past 14 seasons that does not include a Pac-12 (or Pac-10) team, joining Penn State-Texas in 2009 and Nebraska-Wisconsin in 2000.