Historic match awaits Big Ten's NCAA finalists

If there was a collective statement set out to be made by the Big Ten coaches and players coming into this year’s NCAA Tournament, then the nation is listening after Thursday night. For the first time in history, two Big Ten women’s volleyball teams will play for the NCAA national title.

Penn State and Wisconsin advanced to Saturday’s championship match due in part to the challenges faced in what was arguably the most difficult year of Big Ten volleyball in the league’s history. We look back at those matches and ahead to Saturday’s big event. Also, vote for your predicted winner at the bottom of this post.

Each year, the coaches talk about how well the conference prepares teams for the postseason, and that has never been more apparent than in 2013, when seven teams advanced to the Sweet 16.

Thursday night’s matches were remarkable, but in two drastically different ways. Wisconsin came in as a decided underdog facing the defending champion Texas Longhorns and won in convincing fashion in four sets after taking a 2-0 lead. Penn State was expected to have a serious challenge from Pac-12 champion Washington, but was so dominant that at times the Nittany Lions’ play seemed flawless.

[MORE: Use NCAA.com bracket | Watch NCAA.com videos ]

Against Texas, Wisconsin jumped out to an early lead, thanks to execution from the service line. Senior Annemarie Hickey had two aces in the match’s first nine points and began a Badger trend that consistently forced the Longhorns into a bad first contact and out of system passes. An attack as prolific as Texas’ became predictable and not nearly as powerful as it had been during the Longhorns’ 22-match win streak. Tough serving and exceptional defense as well as a dynamic setter carried the Badgers to a 2-0 lead and eventually the victory.

Watch the Wisconsin-Texas highlights below:

Freshman setter Lauren Carlini has been brilliant throughout the season and was on display against Texas finishing with 50 assists, 12 digs and two blocks. The Big Ten Freshman of the Year once again distributed the ball to numerous attackers and even put her hitters in perfect position when she had to bump set the ball all the way cross-court. The former national high school player of the year had to make voters who did not select her on their national freshman of the year ballot question their decisions after her semifinal performance.

“In warms ups I asked how are you doing? And she says, I love this. This is why I play, the bigger the lights, the better. That’s her mentality,” head coach Kelly Sheffield said when asked about Carlini post match. “When you’ve got confidence in big moments and you’re skilled, you’re going to do some special things. And tonight she did some special things.”

The team effort by the Badgers this postseason has been made up of players doing special things, and it’s the reason Wisconsin has moved on to the national championship match for the second time in program history. Deme Morales tooling the block, Ellen Chapman adding timely kills, Dominique Thompson terminating on the slide and Courtney Thomas’ do-it-all effort have all been special for the Badgers. Factor in the defense of Hickey, who finished with 21 kills Thursday, and Sheffield might just have admit that his team is finally playing its best volleyball of the season.

Watch the Penn State-Washington highlights below:

Penn State has had some dominant performances this season, but what was shown on Thursday night may have been the most one-sided match the Nittany Lions have played all year. Only twice this season has Penn State had a better hitting percentage than it did against Washington, and that was on September 20 vs. Albany (.522) and October 3 at Indiana (.507). Albany did not win a single non-conference match and Indiana finished last in the Big Ten. The Nittany Lions hit .488 against the nation’s No. 3 team and Pac-12 conference champion on volleyball’s biggest stage. Elevating the level of play seems to be an understatement when referring to Penn State’s effort in the Final Four.

Through Dec. 19
Big Ten Overall
Team Record Pct. Record Pct.
Penn State 19-1 .950 33-2 .943
Nebraska 16-4 .800 26-7 .788
Minnesota 15-5 .750 29-7 .806
Wisconsin 12-8 .600 28-9 .757
Illinois 12-8 .600 18-15 .545
Purdue 11-9 .550 23-12 .657
Michigan State 10-10 .500 23-12 .657
Michigan 8-12 .400 18-14 .562
Northwestern 8-12 .400 16-16 .500
Ohio State 6-14 .300 18-14 .562
Iowa 2-18 .100 11-21 .344
Indiana 1-19 .050 9-22 .290

The second national semifinal began in similar fashion to how Wisconsin built up its lead on Texas, with tough serving that kept the Huskies on their heels in the first set. Penn State’s all-time leader in service aces Micha Hancock served a seven point run from the back line, which included two aces, to give the Nittany Lions a 17-11 lead that seized control of the match. The second set included another seven point serving run from Hancock and at 17-6, only a meltdown would keep Penn State from its fifth trip to the national title match in the last seven years.

Along with tough serving came low-error play and after witnessing a good portion of the Nittany Lions’ Big Ten season, the Penn State attack was never better than it was Thursday in KeyArena. Russ Rose’s team made only two hitting errors in the first two sets, five for the match, and no matter whom Hancock was setting the ball to, her teammates were terminating with authority.

The three senior starters, who are now one match from bookending their careers with national titles, were nearly flawless and focused unlike any other time in their careers. Deja McClendon had 11 kills, 13 digs and three blocks, Ariel Scott had 10 kills and no errors and Katie Slay had eight kills and four blocks in the straight set win. McClendon’s 13 digs was tied for the team lead with junior libero Dominique Gonzalez and the passing out of the back row from those two, as well as sophomore Megan Courtney, helped fuel the Penn State attack.

All season the focus has been on returning to this stage for the Nittany Lions after falling short a year ago when an ankle injury to Hancock in the national semifinal took Penn State out of its rhythm. The senior class won a national title as freshman in 2010, and now will have the opportunity to add to the lore of Penn State volleyball if it can bring a sixth trophy back to Rec Hall.

NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP PREVIEW

No. 12 Wisconsin vs No. 2 Penn State – Saturday 9:30 ET

The dream of an all Big Ten national final has finally come to be and Saturday night will be the third meeting for Wisconsin and Penn State this season. The first two meetings were straight set wins by Penn State, but the Nittany Lions were held nearly 100 points below their season hitting percentage in both matches with the Badgers.

In University Park, on Oct. 12, Penn State was led by Scott with 13 kills, while Wisconsin had 11 kills from Thomas and 10 kills from Chapman. The second meeting in Madison, on November 15, saw Courtney lead the Nittany Lions with 15 kills and 11 digs, while Chapman had 12 kills for the Badgers. Penn State hit a combined .223 for both matches, well off the season average mark of .309 that ranks in the top 5 nationally.

Both coaches felt the matches were closer than the final result made them seem and Sheffield was pleased with his team’s performance in the two matches despite the losses.

“We left the weekend feeling like we can play with anybody, we just have to keep trying to close the gap on the big boys,” said Sheffield after his team’s first loss at Penn State in October.

The win over Texas is evidence of the Badgers erasing that gap, but now can they do it against the Big Ten’s iconic program? What was true for Wisconsin heading into the match against the Longhorns remains the same when facing the Nittany Lions – the Badgers must serve tough and play excellent back-row defense because they won’t win a match decided at the net. The downside for Wisconsin is that even if it can slow two or three of Penn State’s weapons, as it did against Texas, there are more arms ready to step up for the Nittany Lions. If there is a more balanced team in the nation than Penn State, I have yet to see them.

The setter position battle will be crucial Saturday night. Both Hancock and Carlini have proven themselves in numerous ways this year as well as earning All-America honors this week. Hancock had always been considered a hitter who plays the setter position but following the win over the Huskies she received some rare praise from Rose.

“I thought she played really well tonight and I said that to her after the match, plus when was the last time I said you played terrific? And she says, I’m a junior, so I guess that’s it,” said Rose in his post match press conference.

Prior to Penn State’s November 15 match at the UW Field House, Rose also gave his perspective on Carlini.

“I think she is an incredibly confident, talented kid,” Rose said back then. “Right now, she is the best a taking out of system balls and making them hittable better than anybody else in the conference.”

Rose’s opinion could have changed leading into the championship match, but the respect he had for Carlini’s ability was apparent during conference play.

The culmination of the 2013 season comes down to these two Big Ten foes, and it’s an appropriate ending following a year where the conference set the NCAA record for most teams in the Top 25 and most in the round of 16. How can you give one team an edge? Penn State has been dominant winning 24 straight matches, but Wisconsin has busted streaks and defied expectation. No matter the result, the Big Ten will claim its sixth title in the past eight years and once again assert its supremacy in Division I volleyball.

***

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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1 Comment

Your Opinion?
Show Comments (1 Comment)
Dave Dorn on 12/21/2013 @ 11:45am EDT Said:

On Wisconsin, but they are going to need a Villanova type effort to beat the machine we saw the other night, known as PSU. Go Bucky, Go B10, but I think PSU comes back with the gold.

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