Penn State excels in every way
SEATTLE -- You better believe that Penn State's volleyball players were paying close attention to the first national semifinal here at KeyArena on Thursday.
The Nittany Lions watched as the No. 1 seed, Texas, was knocked out by Wisconsin. Then in the nightcap, No. 2 seed Penn State put the hammer down from the start against Washington, sweeping the Huskies 25-14, 25-13, 25-16.
"The reason why we knew we had to do that was the match before," Penn State senior Deja McClendon said. "We saw Wisconsin -- a team we know to be very good, but was considered underdogs -- go out there and start off really strong and win.
"So we knew we had to start strong, especially because of the big hitters for Washington."
McClendon credited the serve of setter Micha Hancock with being a key for Penn State, along with the Nittany Lions' lack of errors.
"And the fire," McClendon said of Penn State's aggressive mindset. "I feel like we play better when we have some adversity, and all the purple in the crowd really motivated us."
The third-seeded Huskies were the hometown team, playing less than five miles from their campus, and the KeyArena crowd filled with Washington fans did its best to support them. But despite being the No. 3 seed and the Pac-12 champions, the Huskies looked overmatched by Big Ten champion Penn State.
Both these teams had to go to five sets in their regional finals. Penn State was actually down 9-6 in the last set against Stanford, while Washington rallied from two sets down against USC.
Those victories set up what could have been a very competitive national semifinal. But it didn't work out that way, because Penn State didn't let it happen.
"Penn State was excellent," Washington coach Jim McLaughlin said. "Every part of the game. They won every individual battle."
Indeed, the Nittany Lions excelled at everything. They hit .488 and spread the offense all around. McClendon led the team with 11 kills, and fellow senior Ariel Scott had 10.
McClendon and Dominque Gonzalez each had 13 digs, and the Penn State defense flat-out shut down Washington star Krista Vansant, who was held to seven kills on 28 attacks.
"We applaud their season," Penn State coach Russ Rose said of the Huskies. "To win a conference and get to the final four is really hard. And we're thankful we're going forward."
It was Washington's first appearance in the national semifinals since 2006, when they lost to eventual champion Nebraska. By contrast, Penn State has made it at least as far as the national semis now for six of the past seven years.
Last season, the Nittany Lions lost in the semis to Oregon. That match was impacted by an ankle injury Hancock suffered during the second set that clearly impacted her jumping ability and overall mobility the rest of the way.
That loss burned for the Nittany Lions, who really wanted a chance to take on Texas in the 2012 final. But McClendon said she and her teammates put that disappointment to good use during their offseason workouts. They entered the 2013 season with one goal in mind: winning the program's sixth NCAA title.
Penn State lost twice during the regular season -- against Texas and Michigan State, both in five sets. But the Nittany Lions now won 24 matches in a row and will be the favorite in an all-Big Ten final Saturday.
This is the first time since 2002 -- when USC beat Stanford -- that both finalists are from the same conference. Penn State beat Wisconsin twice this season, both in sweeps. Overall, Penn State has a 42-7 series record against the Badgers.
But Wisconsin definitely has the respect of the Nittany Lions, which was the case even before the Badgers upset Texas.
"They have such strong fight," McClendon said. "That is the key for them. They came out thinking they were going to beat Texas 3-0. And that matters. They are just fighters. Texas is an amazing team, but they didn't start out well. And you could tell with Wisconsin, they got that little glimmer in their eyes."
Much as they admired what the Badgers did, now the Nittany Lions will try to put out that glimmer.
"I'm proud of the Big Ten," McClendon said. "I love seeing another Big Ten team in the finals. I can't wait to play them. I definitely think it helps to know more about them. But at the same time, they know about us."
Knowing about the Nittany Lions and actually stopping them, though, are two very different things.