Never underestimate an undersized opponent.
A front line that features two of the shortest players at their positions put a tall, imposing lineup on the verge of playing a fifth set in the national title match, but ultimately Penn State stood tall and defeated gutsy Wisconsin 3-1 in front of an announced crowd of 14,779 Saturday night at KeyArena, the third largest crowd for an NCAA Division I title game.
A wildly entertaining volleyball match had Penn State leading 2-1 but devoid of momentum and trailing 23-20 in the fourth set.
The Nittany Lions closed the match with a 5-0 run highlighted by wicked serves by first-team All-American setter Micha Hancock, who sidespinned two aces during that critical span.
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The 25-19, 26-24, 20-25, 25-23 victory gives second-seeded Penn State (34-2) its sixth national title and fifth in the past seven seasons.
The Nittany Lions are tied with Stanford for most volleyball titles in NCAA history.
Wisconsin, the No. 12 seed and the fourth-place finisher in the Big Ten, ended its season at 28-10.
Ariel Scott led Penn State with 21 kills. Katie Slay, a 6-foot-6 middle blocker, had 10 of her 14 kills in the first two sets. Deja McClendon finished with 11 kills. Hancock had 16 digs, while Megan Courtney and Dominique Gonzalez each had 20 digs for the winners.
The Badgers, behind the valiant play of 5-foot-7 outside hitter Deme Morales (15 kills) and 5-11 middle blocker Dominique Thompson (16), pushed Penn State hard in the fourth set but could not close it out.
Wisconsin improved its play with each set. The Badgers almost won the second set after trailing 11-5, but hit two critical service errors at the end, including when serving for set point at 24-23. Two kills by Scott gave the Nittany Lions a 2-0 lead at intermission.
The Badgers rallied to win the third set largely due to six kills by Thompson.
“She’s probably one of the most underrated middles in the country,” said Wisconsin setter Lauren Carlini, a second-team All-American. “People look at her height more than anything and think, ‘Oh, she can’t be good.’ More times she’s the go-to option. She lit it up tonight and made them pay.”
Morales had eight kills in the final two sets.
“I just kept feeding her until she got stopped,” Carlini said. “And even then we just kept running (the offense to her), and she kept battling through it.”
Penn State coach Russ Rose, in his 35th year at the school, said neither he nor his players took Wisconsin, playing in just its second national title game, lightly.
“They’re really good,” he said. “They made it to the national championship and they could have won it. The story is how well those kids played.”
Rose pointed out that Morales hit for high numbers against taller opponents throughout the tournament.
“I don’t think it’s a size-related thing. We lost to Wisconsin a couple of years ago. This was a match we had to grind out against a really good opponent.”
The majority of the crowd was rooting for the Badgers, and Gonzalez noticed.
“There were a couple of times I heard boos,” she said. “It was like, ‘Dang, tough crowd.’ They were a great team. Why not cheer for the underdog?”