Tough serving was expected to play a big role in Thursday night’s NCAA volleyball Final Four late semifinal, but Washington didn’t want to be on the receiving end.
Absorbing a barrage of forceful jump serves by first-team All-American Micha Hancock and a blistering attack by a tall and athletic front line, the third-seeded Huskies saw their dream of playing in the national championship game in their hometown go poof. UW was overpowered by second-seeded Penn State 3-0 in front of 14,975 at KeyArena.
After cruising to its 24th consecutive win, Penn State (33-2) will face surprising Wisconsin (28-9), the No. 12 seed, which beat top-seeded Texas in the early game, in an all-Big Ten championship match Saturday night (ESPN2, 6:30 p.m.)
The Huskies (30-3), making their first Final Four appearance since 2006, were overmatched on the floor and in the stat sheet, falling 25-14, 25-13, 25-16.
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“It’s tough,” UW coach Jim McLaughlin said. “It stinks. The amount of time these players put in, the investment is so high, the pain can be deep, and we’re feeling it right now.”
Penn State committed just five attack errors and, with 46 kills to Washington’s 28, and hit .488. The Nittany Lions were led by senior outside hitter Deja McClendon, who had team-high totals in kills (11) and digs (13), along with libero Dominique Gonzalez).
The Nittany Lions led in blocks (8-3), digs (45-29) and aces (5-1).
The service game, typically a Washington strength, was a key factor. Penn State’s Hancock, ranked No. 2 nationally in aces per set, went on seven-point scoring runs in the first and second sets.
“Penn State was excellent in every part of the game,” McLaughlin said. “They won every individual battle.”
Things briefly looked good for the Huskies at the start. As they did in their first set of a dramatic comeback win in a regional final last Saturday at USC, the Huskies pulled ahead by four points early, 10-6.
But unlike the USC match, the Huskies had no answer for the steady bombardment of high-powered attacks by McClendon, Ariel Scott (10 kills) and Hancock. After the left-handed Hancock got on her first-set roll, the Nittany Lions closed the set on a 16-4 run, and it was evident the Huskies were in trouble.
“When we were up 10-6 and we were in a good side out war with them, Micha goes back and hits that jump serve, and that deflated us a little bit,” McLaughlin said. “Looking back I wish I had put Jo (libero Jenna Orlandini) in the middle (from a left-back position) like we did against (Samantha) Bricio from USC.”
The Huskies hit .117, a season low.
Only once, late in the third set, did UW string together three consecutive points.
Kaleigh Nelson led the team with eight kills, Krista Vansant had seven and Kylin Munoz, in her final college match, had five.
What made Hancock’s serves so tough to handle? “She’s a lefty,” Orlandini said, “so the ball is coming from a different curve when you have that kind of pace on it. You’ve got to work to get your angle right. She has a good serve. We knew that going into it.”
McLaughlin conceded it was a match where Penn State played well and UW was below standard.
“I watched six matches of (Penn State) this year,” he said, “and this was the most consistent they played. But we kind of allowed them to be good, too.
“It was the first time we hadn’t responded to the adversity, and we panicked a little. I just didn’t feel like we got in some good positions to pressure them. They’re a team that you’ve got to win the serve and pass, and we had done that all year. We didn’t do it tonight. I think they missed four passes. That’s unbelievable.”