The championship match of the NCAA volleyball Final Four played out like a four-act drama Saturday night at KeyArena, and at its chest-clutching conclusion Penn State emerged victorious and Wisconsin walked away vindicated.
Penn State, the tournament’s No. 2 seed, used its physical might and the forceful, sidespinning serve by left-handed setter Micha Hancock to finally vanquish a smaller but tenacious Wisconsin squad 3-1 in front of a crowd announced at 14,779, the third-largest for an NCAA volleyball final.
Winning a thriller by scores of 25-19, 26-24, 20-25, 25-23, the Nittany Lions (34-2) claimed their fifth national title in seven years and the sixth in the 35-year career of coach Russ Rose, tying Penn State with Stanford for most championships in the sport.
It was anything but easy. Though the 12th-seeded Badgers had finished fourth in the Big Ten, had twice lost to Penn State 3-0 during the regular season and had not beaten a seeded opponent while advancing to the Final Four, they proved formidable in Seattle.
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“All three times that we played Wisconsin this year was a battle,” Rose said. “They play great defense. They play really hard. They’re passionate kids.”
Wisconsin lines up two of the shortest players at their position in Division I, 5-foot-7 outside hitter Deme Morales and 5-11 middle blocker Dominique Thompson. Penn State counters with 6-4 Ariel Scott on the outside and 6-6 Katie Slay in the middle.
The Badgers ran the defending national champion, Texas, ragged with tough serves and aggressive play in a semifinal Thursday. Against Penn State, which swept Washington on Thursday, they got pounded by Slay in the first set (six kills).
They put Penn State on its heels in the second set and served for set point at 24-23, yet they sent their serve into the net. With that reprieve, Scott blasted home two consecutive kills to claim the set and a 2-0 lead at intermission.
Thompson recorded six kills in each the second and third sets, and the Badgers took the third and had clearly won over the crowd with their energy and pluck.
They led 23-20 in the fourth set but Hancock, who riddled Washington’s serve-receive lineup on Thursday, drilled two aces in her closing serving sequence to win the final five points and the match.
“We knew we could be 1-1 at the intermission,” Rose said after the match. “So we feel very fortunate. It was a grind out match which we knew we’d have to do because of how well Wisconsin plays.”
Hancock was the named the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player. Scott let PSU with 21 kills. Thompson topped Wisconsin with 16 kills, and Morales, who turned 21 on Saturday, had 15. Wisconsin libero Annemarie Hickey, who had a match-high 26 digs, played the last half of the final set with a dislocated right shoulder. “I didn’t want to come out,” she said.
First-year Wisconsin coach Kelly Sheffield was as wowed by his players as the KeyArena crowd. “I know probably not a whole lot of people thought that we had a chance to do that,” he said. “But our players did.”
• Scattered empty seats could be seen in the lower bowl of KeyArena Saturday night, but not in large clusters. Kevin Ticen, spokesman for the Seattle Sports Commission, reports that scan reports show “close to 12,000 tickets” were used Saturday night.
The attendance figure of 14,779 reflects tickets sold for the event.