Volleyball Report: B1G Final Four preview

An unprecedented seven Big Ten teams entered last weekend with dreams of reaching the Final Four. After the last whistle Saturday night, two still remained, as Penn State and Wisconsin advanced to Seattle for the national semifinals.

Tonight, the 12th-seeded  Badgers (vs. No. 1 Texas) and second-seeded Nittany Lions (vs. No. 3 Washington) will try to advance to the national title match.

Before I preview the national semifinal matchups, let’s take a quick look back at last weekend, which featured epic play from numerous conference members and also witnessed the end of several decorated careers. Minnesota Nebraska and Purdue all advanced to the regional finals, but could not overcome their competition, bringing an end to the careers of seniors like Kelsey Robinson, Carly Cramer, Catherine Rebarchak, Tori Dixon and Ashley Wittman.

Penn State played what may have been one of the best matches all season in defeating Stanford 3-2, the only other team to qualify for every NCAA Tournament. Down 9-6 in the fifth, Penn State called a timeout and then went on a 9-2 run to defeat the Cardinal on the strength of its block.

When it looked bleak for the Nittany Lions their three seniors, who have started essentially all four years, stepped up. Ariel Scott finished with 22 kills, Deja McClendon had 21 kills and 16 digs and Katie Slay had 9 kills and 10 blocks. Three seniors who were determined to not let their season end before a chance to bookend their careers with national titles came through at the crucial moments.

Errors were an issue throughout the match for Penn State, however, as it finished with 36 attack errors and 10 service errors. Before the tournament, I felt that an error-plagued match could be the Nittany Lions’ downfall. It almost came to be on Saturday, but Penn State fans will hope that effort won’t be repeated on championship weekend.

Wisconsin would not face nearly the drama that Penn State did on Saturday, as the Badgers knocked off Purdue in four sets. Despite being out-blocked, the Badgers used their team defense with four players in double-figure digs to set up an improved offense that featured 20 kills from Deme Morales and 19 from Ellen Chapman. Other than dropping the second set, Wisconsin seemed to have control of the match.

A team that started the season riddled with injuries and that suffered through an ever-changing lineup has found its stride in the second half of the year. And now, it’s headed back to the Final Four for the first time since 2000.

NATIONAL SEMIFINAL PREVIEWS

No. 12 Wisconsin vs No. 1 Texas – Thursday 7:30 ET 

Conventional wisdom would tell you Wisconsin does not have a good shot against Texas on Thursday. The Longhorns came into the tournament as the defending national champions and No. 1 overall seed. They have not lost since September 13 on their way to a perfect season in the Big 12 and No. 1 spot in the poll for the final seven weeks of the regular season. This is the program’s ninth Final Four appearance and fifth in the past six seasons. However, the Badgers have defied logic at every turn this year.

The Longhorns are led by two-time Big 12 Player of the Year and two-time All-American Haley Eckerman, who had 14 kills and 15 digs in a sweep of Nebraska in the regional final last week. Texas is one of the nation’s top blocking and hitting teams and defeated eight ranked teams this season, including Penn State, Illinois and Nebraska twice. Three different players average over a block per set, and including Eckerman, the average height of the front row for the Longhorns is 6’2”.  Eckerman is also aided by another two-time All-American in Bailey Webster, as well as Big 12 Freshman of the Year Chiaka Ogbogu.

Head-to-head the numbers don’t look favorable for Wisconsin, but that’s been the case throughout the season and the Badgers have found ways to win with their defense. Kelly Sheffield came into his first season in Madison asking his staff what can we be better at than practically any other team in the nation, and the answer was passing. With Annemarie Hickey anchoring the defense at the libero spot, Deme Morales’ passing numbers improving throughout the season and Taylor Morey coming off the bench, Wisconsin has met that standard. While passing numbers are not as easy to directly compare between opponents, the Badgers have been able to frustrate teams throughout the year and will likely do it again versus Texas.

Another edge that Wisconsin has is that there is not another setter like Lauren Carlini on the other side of the net Thursday. Not to disrespect Hannah Allison, of Texas, but last year’s No. 1 recruit has lived up to the billing this season. Carlini was chosen as the Champaign Regional’s MVP, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a unanimous selection as she distributed the ball so well to her now balanced attack that three different players went over 15 kills in the regional final against Purdue.

One of the players who has benefited significantly from Carlini’s setting is Ellen Chapman, who has emerged as All-America candidate in her junior season. Prior to the year, Sheffield said he called Chapman to ask about her goals after he took the head coaching job.

“I asked her had she ever thought about being an All-American, and she said ‘No,'” Sheffield said. “I said, I think you ought to start. “I said, you need to start thinking about it. If that’s a goal of yours, that’s how we’re going to coach you.”

“I know the All-American committee is meeting right now, and who knows what they’re doing. But you look at the numbers that kid put up the last 11 matches and they’re probably first-team All-American numbers.”

The numbers Sheffield referred to are 3.98 kills per set and a hitting percentage of .319 during the that span, including 39 kills during regional play last weekend. Chapman has evolved into a player who can go toe-to-toe with other great outsides in the nation, and she will need to against Eckerman.

No. 2 Penn State vs. No. 3 Washington – Thursday 9:30 ET 

Watching the nightcap on Saturday, it was clear that Penn State had a pick-your-poison scenario on its hands. Washington and USC both had players who were putting on a showcase that could present challenges for the Nittany Lions on Thursday night. The Huskies are led by Pac-12 Player of the Year Krista Vansant, and in the regional final against the Trojans, Vansant had 38 kills & 30 digs, including seven kills in the decisive 5th set. Penn State will not have to face Ebony Nwanebu, the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year for USC who had a hard to fathom 30 kills on 53 swings with 0 errors in the loss.

With Saturday’s come-from-behind win for the Huskies, Washington now gets to play in a virtual home match for the Final Four as KeyArena, this year’s host site, is a mere four miles away from the Huskies home floor at the Alaska Airlines Arena.

Over the past few seasons, Penn State head coach Russ Rose has mentioned that teams that win on the road in front of big crowds are special, and the Nittany Lions were one of those teams during their four-year stretch of national titles. This year, Rose’s squad has won in front 8,500 fans in Lincoln, nearly 6,000 in Minneapolis and Wisconsin, as well as other raucous environments throughout the Big Ten. KeyArena’s capacity is over 17,000, and while attendance should be high for this weekend, the devotion of Pac-12 fans has not quite reached that of Big Ten levels. This is a group of Nittany Lions that knows how to win on the road and Penn State will not be fazed by a hostile environment.

Washington won the Pac-12 this year by a match over Stanford and was undefeated at home this season. Victories over Alabama State, LSU, Kansas and USC earned the Huskies a spot in the Final Four for the first time since 2006 and fourth time in program history. Vansant averages 4.46 kills per set and hits .323 for the season as well as owns an average of 2.81 digs per set. Two other players, in Lianna Sybeldon and Kaleigh Nelson, average over two kills per set, as well, and the Huskies also have two players who are over one block per set this year. Washington is 29th in kills per set, 14th in hitting percentage, 17th in blocks and 6th in aces. All categories where Penn State has an edge – with the exception of service aces. The only two losses this year for the Pac-12 champions came against Colorado, a team that took Minnesota to five sets on its home floor in the tournament, and Stanford on the road.

What could be a deciding factor on Thursday will be whether or not the Huskies have enough balance in their attack to beat Penn State. There are other players who have solid numbers for Washington and have the ability to have a big night, but the Huskies rely on Vansant and the Nittany Lions top-ranked block has had success against outside heavy attacks in the past. Kelsey Robinson was held to one kill below her per set average this season when Penn State defeated Nebraska on November 30, Kaitlyn Leary failed to reach double-digits in both matches against the Nittany Lions and Stephanie Holthus hit below her season average in both meetings. Nebraska is the only team of that group that has had success on par with Washington, but all three had dominant outsides that Penn State was able to contain. The Nittany Lions will need to do the same against Vansant to advance to another National Championship match.

About Mike Wolf Mike Wolf is a BTN announcer and calls Big Ten volleyball matches on the Big Ten Network. His Volleyball Reports will appear on BTN.com every Tuesday for the rest of the Big Ten volleyball season. You can also follow our extended volleyball coverage on Twitter with @BTNvolleyball.

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