Kansas City-bound: Penn State vs. Nebraska, Stanford vs. Florida

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Penn State celebrates beating Michigan State on Saturday/Mark Selders photo

If you’re going to Kansas City, don’t be looking for upstarts.

Kevin Hambly is the baby coach of the group, in just his ninth year after eight seasons at Illinois. But he is at the helm of defending-champion Stanford, which dismantled Texas.

After the remarkable comeback against USC, you have the Gators and Mary Wise, 31 years as a head coach and in her 27th year at Florida, which returns to the NCAA Division I Women’s Volleyball Championship for the first time since 2003.

Nebraska? Coach John Cook is in his 18th year and goes for his second title in three years after the Huskers got past Kentucky in four.

And Penn State and 39th-year coach Russ Rose simply put another punctuation mark on their incredible season by sweeping Michigan State and now has a shot at title No. 8.

And with that, we have the following on Thursday night in the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Missouri:

No. 1 Penn State (33-1) vs. No. 5 Nebraska (30-4), 7 p.m. Eastern
No. 2 Florida (29-1) vs. No. 3 Stanford (30-3), 9 p.m. Eastern

Of course, it’s highly unlikely the second match will start on time. The semifinals are on ESPN, with Saturday’s 9 p.m. Eastern title match on ESPN2.

It leaves two teams from the Big Ten, and Penn State and Nebraska have to play each other. Nebraska, which won in three at Penn State to open the B1G season on September 22, is the only team to beat the Nittany Lions.

Florida is the first SEC team to get to the final four since Tennessee in 2005, two years after the Gators were there in 2003.

And Stanford, which won the league title, carries the Pac-12 torch after nine teams got into the tournament.

Nebraska 3, Kentucky 1: Kentucky almost did it again. The Wildcats, who rallied to win both of their previous two matches in five, eventually lost to Nebraska 25-19, 25-22, 25-27, 25-22 but not before getting the home crowd of 4,464 into a frenzy.

Instead the Huskers are headed to their third national semifinals in a row.

They won it all two years ago in Omaha, beating Texas in the final. Last year, they lost to Texas in the semifinals. This year they opened the season at Florida and lost to both Oregon and Florida in a tournament in which senior setter Kelly Hunter did not play.

They’re 30-2 since with a long hoped-for Penn State rematch up next.

“I mean, it is a great match-up. They are ranked No. 1 and we see them a lot and we only saw them once this year,” Hunter said. “So, I am sure they are going to be hungry to beat us. We are the only team that beat them. So, I mean, it is always fun to play girls you know. You know their tendencies. You know their scout and all that, but it is always a good rivalry with them.”

Mikaela Foecke led with 18 kills while hitting .375. She had eight digs and three blocks. Annika Albrecht had 14 kills, 11 digs and three blocks and Briana Holman, had six blocks, and Jazz Sweet had four, one solo, had 11 kills each.

Hunter had two kills, two aces, 11 digs and two blocks to go with her 46 assists.

“Well, first of all what a great match, great crowd and a great environment. Kentucky’s a great team and I’m really impressed with Kentucky, how well they play the game. How well they do everything,” Nebraska’s Cook said.

“So, we had to dig as deep tonight as we ever have all season. You know, but this team is also led by a setter who’s now putting herself in an elite category, three straight Final Fours for Kelly.”

Fourth-seeded Kentucky, which shared the SEC title with Florida, ended its season 29-4. The Wildcats lost only to ranked teams, to Creighton and Northern Iowa (which also beat Nebraska) and then at Florida.

“Well as a competitor you want to be mad because you just lost a competition, but I can’t find any reason to be mad,” said 13th-year Kentucky coach Craig Skinner, a former assistant to Cook at Wisconsin and Nebraska. 

“I’m just really proud to have been able, with myself and our staff, to be able to coach this team, and they did everything right. You struggle to find the words at the end of a season to make it feel right, but everybody in that locker room knows what they’ve done and how proud they should be and how they should feel about what we’ve accomplished.”

Sophomore outside Leah Edmond, who is a strong candidate for national player of the year, led UK with 20 kills, 11 digs and three blocks. Seniors Emily Franklin and Kaz Brown had 11 kills and five blocks each. Freshman Avery Skinner had 10 kills.

Nebraska hit .271, while UK hit .252.

“If you look at the stats, that was about as even as a match as you could get. Four and five seeds going at it toe–to-toe, and they probably won the serving battle, which would have been the difference in the match, but a lot of credit to Nebraska. It’s one of the best coaching jobs I think John and his staff have done with a group like that,” Skinner said.

“This team is special and our state, our volleyball community, our university will remember this group for a long time. Like I told them in the locker room, these seniors have left a foundation for us to springboard off. I’m not going to cry. It’s emotional because I feel for these guys, but just proud to be their coach.”

Penn State 3, Michigan State 0: The Nittany Lions, playing before a home crowd of 3,521, got past Michigan State 25-23, 25-17, 28-26 and head into the final four with the most wins and on a 23-match winning streak.

As she has done most of the season, Simone Lee led Penn State with 12 kills, 10 digs and three blocks, one solo. Heidi Thelen had nine kills in 14 errorless swings, and had four blocks and two digs. Ali Frantti had eight kills, 10 digs and a block and Haleigh Washington — who hit an uncharacteristically low .176 — had five kills and 10 blocks, three solo.

“I don’t think it was our best match, but having coached for a long time I would say that sometimes these matches are really tough to play and all the teams that get this far play really hard,” Rose said. “You know I thought Simone hit really well. It was great to bring Nia (Reed) in the end and do well. Bryanna (Weiskircher) … did a really nice job setting. She stays calm in tough situations which is a great trait.”

Senior-laden Michigan State, an at-large from the Big Ten, ended its season 24-9 as Autumn Bailey led with 18 kills and 12 digs. Holly Toliver had nine kills, 10 digs and four blocks.

“This is not one of the things that you really want to talk about this time, because it’s a never easy to close out a season, especially when you have seven seniors that you’re so, so proud of,” Michigan State coach Cathy George said. “With that being said, it was a hell of a match, and we played our hearts out.”

Florida celebrates its win over USC/ Matt Stamey photo

Florida 3, USC 2: It was by far the most exciting match of the day. Florida was down two sets to one, trailed 24-23 in the fourth, and then by 9-5 in the fifth before rallying for a 25-23, 20-25, 18-25, 26-24, 15-11 victory.

“We want to congratulate Florida on a great victory tonight,” USC coach Mick Haley said. “So many times you’re talking about losing a match, but they won the match. That was as strong a battle as you are going to see in the NCAA Tournament because both teams went for it.”

“We have been so fortunate to be a part of some pretty amazing regional finals and this one will go up with all of them,” Wise understated.

Florida, playing at home before 3,741 in a match that took 2 hours, 32 minutes, got 15 kills from Shainah Joseph, who not only had three of them after her team trailed 23-22 in the fourth, but also the match-ender.

Joseph tried to fire her team up before the fifth set.

“I’m not sure,” Joseph recalled. “I kind of blacked out. At one point, I said, ‘Just pass the ball and I will get you some kills.’ At another point I said, ‘If our passers can get the ball up, the hitters will get us kills.’

“So many things were said. I just wanted everyone on the same level of intensity.”

Joseph, who hit .317, had four digs and two blocks, one solo.

“I love that this story, that is still being written, will have one chapter in it that will talk about Shainah Joseph,” Wise said. “The player who could have left, who was willing to wait her turn until her senior year. A player like that, in any sport, would have transferred but she stayed with the Gator family.”

Senior outside Carli Snyder struggled terribly early, but as the match went found her rhythm. Snyder finished with 11 kills while hitting .117, but had 18 digs and five blocks. What’s more, she had two kills late and a huge ace that gave Florida a 14-11 lead in the fifth.

You have to give (Snyder) credit because she went for it at the end with a top-spin serve and she was able to rip it inbounds and scored,” USC coach Mick Haley said. “I give her a lot of credit for going for it. We had our chances in the first set and we had our chances in the fourth set, but we were not able to finish.

Rachael Kramer had 11 kills while hitting .476 after having one error in 21 swings, to go with four blocks. Rhamat Alhassan had 14 kills, hit .423 and had three digs and six blocks.

“We have two more matches,” Alhassan said. “We are going to Kansas City and it was a great feeling stepping off the court knowing that we still have more to go.”

USC ended its season 25-10. The Trojans, who tied for second in the Pac-12, just couldn’t stop the Gators after they switched gears in the fifth. Sophomore Khalia Lanier had another tremendous match, leading with 26 kills while hitting .383. She had 15 digs and a block.

“It’s really hard because you are so close and last year did not go as well for us,” Lanier said. “You can feel yourself tasting it, imagining going to Kansas City for the final four, so it is very hard to end, especially for our seniors who have done so much for us. But for the younger girls, it lights a fire so much more, my goals for next season are going to be even higher. I am excited for what’s to come.”

Brittany Abercrombie had 14 kills, Brooke Botkin 13 and Niki Withers 10.

“Again, I have to give Florida a lot of credit because they did not back off. All in all, I am really proud of my team, they played their best volleyball at the end of the season. The last two or three weeks have been so fun to coach this team with the way they play and the way they represent USC,” Haley said.

“I told them in the locker room that they were true Trojans and played like Trojans tonight. It didn’t work out in our favor, but in collegiate sports like this, you just have to go for it and hope for the best.”

Stanford storms the court after beating Texas

Stanford 3, Texas 0: Not too many people saw this result coming, certainly not a sweep, but Stanford sent Texas packing by three identical set scores, 25-21, 25-21, 25-21.

Sophomore Kathryn Plummer, the favorite to be the national player of the year, led with 19 kills as she hit .304 and had five digs and two blocks. She’s ready to defend the Cardinal’s title.

“I think it is the goal for every team, obviously,” Plummer said about returning to the national semifinals. “I think that at Stanford that is the expectation. I think for our class, the expectation is that we know how to do it. It is definitely hard and to do it multiple times, but that is our goal and that is why we came here.”

Hambly was glad to have the big outside hitter.

“I thought Kathryn did a great job, she carried a big load for us,” Hambly said. “We probably set her too much with 46 swings. She did a great job, especially in big moments. But the thing about this team, it is not about one person. Some people carry a bigger load offensively, but everyone needs to play their role in order for us to be successful and I thought that’s what we did tonight. Kathryn is certainly a big factor.”

Another of those sophomores, Audriana Fitzmorris, had 10 kills and hit .391 to go with five blocks. And sophomore setter Jenna Gray had 39 assists, two kills, two aces, two blocks and two digs as she and Fitzmorris, both from suburban Kansas City, will be playing at home.

“It has been in the back of my mind for sure, but just try to focus one game at a time,” Fitzmorris said. “I remember being back in Kansas City back in 2010 and watching that championship there. I am glad to be able to be back in that environment.”

Same for Gray.

“I am really excited. I think one of my friends told me my senior year of high school that the final four would be in Kansas City my sophomore year of college, so this has been something that has been on my radar for a couple of years now,” she admitted. “I am definitely excited to see everyone.”

Merete Lutz added seven kills and three blocks for Stanford, and Meghan McClure, who had 14 digs, and Tami Alade had six kills each.

Big 12-champion Texas ended its season 27-3.

“We had a whole bunch of talent on this team. Probably the most talent physically that we’ve had at Texas from top to bottom,” Texas coach Jerritt Elliott told the Austin American-Statesman. “But unfortunately it happens sometimes that you can trip up and not have a great match, and that’s what happened tonight. But credit Stanford, they were a big part of that.”

Micaya White led with 10 kills and 13 digs. Ebony Nwanebu ended her career with eight kills while hitting .429, and Chiaka Ogbogu finished her career with seven kills and three blocks.

“It just felt like we could never get our serve and pass game going at a high level,” Elliott said. “And when we did, we were able to score, but we couldn’t do it for long periods of time, and that’s the name of the game — you have to serve and pass.”

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