By Rich Myhre Herald Writer
SEATTLE — A crowd of mostly purple-clad fans showed up and made a lot of noise, but ultimately it mattered little as the University of Washington fell to Penn State on Thursday night in the second of two semifinals at the NCAA Division I Final Four volleyball tournament.
The powerful Nittany Lions, winners of four straight national championships from 2007-10, overwhelmed Washington in three sets, 25-14, 25-13 and 25-16. It was Penn State’s 24th consecutive victory this season, and it came before 14,975 spectators at KeyArena.
Penn State’s win sets up an all Big Ten Conference championship final on Saturday night. The Nittany Lions will take on Wisconsin, which defeated top-seeded Texas in the evening’s first semifinal, 3-1.
For the Huskies, the defeat ended their season with a final 30-3 record. Washington had reached the Final Four by overcoming an 0-2 deficit against USC in their regional final last Saturday, but against Penn State there would be no similarly dramatic comeback.
The one-sided loss “was a nightmare,” said UW head coach Jim McLaughlin. “It’s not fun in any way, shape or form. … It’s tough. The amount of time these players put in, the investment is so high that the pain can be deep. And we’re feeling it right now.”
“Penn State kept the pressure on us the entire time,” UW junior All-American Krista Vansant said. “They forced us to make plays, and we didn’t do it. … We worked really hard all year, and it just sucks when you don’t put forth your best effort.”
Penn State’s towering front line of 6-foot-6 Katie Slay, 6-4 Ariel Scott, 6-2 Megan Courtney and 6-2 Nia Grant handily won the showdown at the net, and 6-1 Deja McClendon, who is probably the team’s best all-around player, was stellar in the backcourt and with attacks to the net.
Penn State stunned the Huskies in the opening set, turning a tight early contest into an eventual romp. Washington used some kills from Vansant to build a 10-6 lead, but several unforced UW errors helped Penn State go on an 11-1 scoring run. After swapping a few points with the Huskies, Penn State closed the set with an 8-2 burst.
The second set was more of the same, except this time Penn State took command right from the start. The Nittany Lions went in front with two straight points and held their lead until the final point, which was a UW service error into the net.
The third set was closer, but only for a time. Leading 5-4, the Nittany Lions built a cushion with five straight points, which allowed them to trade points with Washington until finally pulling away at the end.
The Nittany Lions finished with a decisive edge in kills (46-28) and committed just five errors to Washington’s 17.
“Penn State was excellent in every part of the game,” McLaughlin said. “They won every individual battle.”
The match was the final collegiate contest for Washington senior Kylin Muñoz, a 2009 graduate of Monroe High School. The Nittany Lions “were very, very good,” Muñoz said, “but we were not ourselves.”
In the evening’s first match, Wisconsin shocked top-seeded Texas in four sets, 25-19, 25-18, 26-28 and 25-23 to reach the title match. The 12th-seeded Badgers (28-9) stung Texas with convincing wins in the first two sets, then let a match-point chance slip away in the third set, but closed out the Longhorns (28-2) in the fourth set.
Penn State and Wisconsin already have met twice this season, with the Nittany Lions winning both matches in three sets.