Texas, Penn State right on track
The collision course Texas and Penn State appear to be on for the volleyball national championship was actually two different routes Saturday.
Yes, the two NCAA powerhouses that entered this season as the favorites to win it all will indeed be in Seattle for volleyball's final four, which starts Thursday at KeyArena. But their experiences in the regional finals were a study in contrasts.
The No. 1 seed Longhorns sent an arena full of Nebraska fans home unhappy with a dominant 3-0 victory in Lincoln, Neb. The atmosphere not only didn't bother the Longhorns, it bolstered them. The defending national champions started the match in control and never really let Nebraska gain much momentum.
Meanwhile, momentum was like a hot potato earlier in the day in Lexington, Ky., as No. 2 seed Penn State survived a taut battle 3-2 over No. 7 Stanford. It was on a neutral court for the two most successful collegiate women's volleyball programs, who played a match worthy of the final four.
However, only one of them will be moving on to Seattle. That's the five-time NCAA champion Nittany Lions, who won 15-11 in the fifth set against the six-time NCAA champion Cardinal.
Penn State's senior class, which won the NCAA title as freshmen in 2010, seemed to find that proverbial higher gear when it was most needed, especially in the fifth set. Penn State's Deja McClendon had 21 kills and 16 digs, while Ariel Scott had 22 and eight. Katie Slay had nine kills and her season high in blocks, with 10.
"I thought Katie Slay's performance tonight was exceptional," Penn State coach Russ Rose said. If you know Rose, that's about as close as you'll ever hear him come to "gushing" about one of his players.
Slay was the ultimate difference-maker. At crunch time, Penn State's block was just too much for Stanford.
You have to feel for the Cardinal. With a record 18 appearances in the final four, Stanford has fallen short of that now for five years in a row. The Cardinal finished second in the Pac-12 and have a mostly young squad that should be in the championship hunt next year.
But this is a loss that stings, as Stanford says goodbye to seniors Carly Wopat and Rachel Williams, who combined for 28 kills Saturday.
"As a coach, what you want is people to be able to enjoy the things that they worked so hard for," Stanford coach John Dunning said. "And when you get to here and you can't [get further], it's tough.
"Then I think you have to take a look at all that is built, and the people who are in the process. And be happy for them, because of all the things they have learned about themselves and about friends and teammates."
Stanford played about as well as the Cardinal could, but it still wasn't quite enough against Penn State. So who can stop the Nittany Lions? They'll next face the winner of Saturday's late match between No. 3 Washington and No. 6 USC.
Penn State will have another Big Ten team with it in Seattle; that was assured Friday when No. 12 seed Wisconsin and Purdue won in the regional semifinals to set up an all-Big Ten final in Champaign, Ill.
The Badgers won that matchup against the Boilermakers 3-1 and advanced to the final four for the first time since 2000.
"I think it's awesome just for the older girls," said Wisconsin's Lauren Carlini, who was the Big Ten freshman of the year. "You go from not making the tournament [in 2012] to the final four. It just shows how much of a transformation everyone has made in that one year. It's magical right now, so crazy."
The Badgers did not have to beat a seeded team to make it the final four. The No. 4 (Missouri) and No. 5 (Florida) seeds in their region were eliminated in the second round, and No. 13 seed Illinois went out in the regional semifinals.
No offense to Wisconsin, which played very well Saturday, led by Deme Morales' 20 kills and 13 digs. But the Boilermakers did a lot of the "heavy lifting," if you will, in this region. Purdue took out Missouri on the Tigers' home court, and then Illinois on the Illini's home court. Yet the Boilermakers still fell short of making the program's first final four.
"It's always tough to lose when you've got a group of seniors that we've got this year that have done everything they could possibly do to make our program better," Purdue coach Dave Shondell said. "They'll finish their careers with a couple Sweet Sixteen finishes and an Elite Eight finish. Wisconsin just served us off the floor tonight."
Meanwhile, the match that had a lot of hype -- Texas versus Nebraska, the two former Big 12 rivals, in front of a sold-out Devaney Center -- was a showcase for the Longhorns.
The news that football coach Mack Brown was stepping down at Texas was just another motivator for the volleyball squad, which didn't seem to need much motivating. Brown was well known for being an accessible, friendly aid to other coaches at Texas, including visiting with volleyball recruits to help convince them that Austin was the place to go.
Texas coach Jerritt Elliott told his team they could honor Brown with another trip to the final four, and they delivered in a big way.
The young Huskers, who were second to Penn State in the Big Ten and the No. 8 seed in the NCAA tournament, battled Texas to a 3-2 loss earlier this season in Austin. Saturday's match wasn't nearly that close.
Led by Haley Eckerman and Bailey Webster, who combined for 26 kills and just three errors, Texas advanced into the final four with a full head of steam.
Penn State and Texas still are one match away from meeting for all the marbles. But based on what we saw Saturday, that could be an epic match if they face off in Seattle.