Washington Had No Answer for Penn State

Julie and Ed Chan
Micha Hancock sets up middle Nia Grant who gathered six kills in the short semifinal match against Washington.

It’s probably safe to make two assessments after Penn State’s three-set steamrolling of Washington on Thursday night:

No, the noise inside Key Arena generated by a sold-out pro-Huskies crowd of 14,975 was not going to affect Penn State.

And, yes, the Big Ten is really that good.

The conference that put seven teams in the round of 16 is now guaranteed the 2013 NCAA Division I Volleyball Championship because earlier Wisconsin ousted No. 1 Texas and then league mate Penn State crushed Washington 25-14, 25-13, 25-16 in a lopsided semifinal no one could have predicted.

“It’s tough. It stinks,” said Washington coach Jim McLaughlin, whose team won the 2005 NCAA title and thrilled this area by winning a spot here this week.

Russ Rose, who has been Penn State’s coach for 35 years and has five NCAA titles to his credit, including four in a row from 2007 to 2010, said simply that “we worked hard on a game plan and the players executed it really well.”

It looked easy. The Nittany Lions' combined 75-43 margin of victory is the widest straight sets national-semifinal victory since the NCAA Tournament went to 25-point rally scoring in 2008.

“No, I wouldn't say it was easy,” Penn State senior right side Ariel Scott said. “We've been doing a lot of scouting. We've been working really hard at practice. I'm proud of us, but Washington is a great team.”

But the Huskies were no match for a Penn State team (33-2) that hit .488. The Nittany Lions had 46 kills in 84 swings with just five errors.

Conversely, Washington (30-3) hit a lowly .117 with 28 kills in 94 attacks with 17 errors.

What’s more, Penn State had five aces, which might have been negated by nine errors (super server setter Micha Hancock had three of each), but Washington had just one ace and six errors.

“I watched six matches on them from this year,” McLaughlin said, “and this was the most consistent they played. 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 bit. We didn’t get in spots to pressure them.”

Penn State, which won its 24th match in a row, was led by senior outside Deja McClendon, with 11 kills in 23 swings with just two errors while hitting .391. She also had a 13 digs.

“I think our blockers did a great job setting up,” McClendon said. “I had a good view of the hitter and then we did a lot of scouting. Our coaches helped a lot, just to plan where they're going to hit the ball.”

“Deja’s a wonderful young person and she’s been our best player all year,” Rose said. “The things that she does are the intangibles that coaches recognize more than people who look at the boxscore. I mean, she’s our best passer, she’s our best defensive player, she’s our best left side blocker, and there are times when she’s unstoppable hitting.”

Scott had 10 kills and no errors in 18 swings for a .556 percentage, and big middle Katie Slay was eight of 11 with no errors (.727) and added four block assists.

Washington’s junior star, outside Krista Vansant, had seven kills in 28 swings and hit .179.

From the start of the match, Penn State was out to stop her.

“Penn State kept the pressure on the whole time and that’s why they were so dominant,” Vansant said.

Junior outside Haleigh Nelson led the Huskies with eight kills, also in 28 swings, but she had five errors and hit . 107.

“They're a system team,” Rose said. “If you have some veteran players that understand part of what they're doing, you might be able to exploit some things. And I thought we had a good plan for the evening, and we were fortunate that we controlled the ball and could do that.

What’s more, Rose said he couldn’t remember the last time Penn State won a match like this, routing the opponent in such a meaningful situation.

“I don’t look back my friend,” he cracked. “That’s why there’s media guides.”

But he knows the significance of what his team did Thursday night, especially after getting past Stanford, also from the Pac-12, in five grueling sets last Saturday to make it here.

“I prepare the same way for 35 years,” Rose said. “I don’t know how many hours sleep people had since we had the press conference [Wednesday], but I’m thinking I was on the lower end of that continuum.

“Coaches only control certain things and you need to work at those things and if you don’t work at those things and just assume you’re going to win, then I think you’re making a bad decision. That’s just my opinion, but I work really hard. I watch a lot of video.

“I watch an incredible amount of video.”

Against Washington it was evident. Will it be Saturday against Wisconsin, which Penn State swept twice this season? McLaughlin, for one, hopes plenty of U-Dub faithful come to watch.

“I hope our fans, who are so good and who have always been so good, I just hope that they come out and watch some good volleyball Saturday.”

He tried to smile.

“I’ll’ be there,” McLaughlin said. “I don’t know who I’m going to cheer for.”

Originally published in February 2014

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