Nittany Lions hit stride in semifinal
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- At least it wasn't a protracted kind of agony this time for Texas. Last season, with Penn State and Texas the undisputed top women's volleyball teams in the nation, they met in an epic NCAA final. Texas got a 2-0 lead but then had to endure it slipping away as the Nittany Lions won their third consecutive national championship.
On Thursday at the Sprint Center, these programs met again, this time in the NCAA semifinals. The players from both sides kept saying beforehand how different these teams were this season from last and that certainly played out in this match. And not to Texas' liking.
You could say the Lions used a scorched-earth policy against the Longhorns. By the time it was over -- and it didn't take long -- Penn State had secured a sweep that somehow seemed more dominant than the 25-13, 25-13, 25-22 score would indicate.
This is familiar territory for Penn State, which will play for the NCAA title for the fourth consecutive year. Despite losing one of the program's most accomplished players, Megan Hodge, from last year's team to graduation, the Lions looked a lot like their championship selves Thursday.
"It's a great feeling, but we're not celebrating yet," senior libero Alyssa D'Errico said. "We have one more match to play. Our goals are the same; our program's goals are the same. It's about upholding that tradition."
The only goal left is to win the national championship, but the Lions will have to beat a red-hot Cal team to do that. The Bears swept USC in the second semifinal; Cal has yet to lose a set in this NCAA tournament.
Penn State has lost just one, and it looked Thursday like the Lions could have played several more against Texas without dropping any. Penn State got off to a 6-0 first-set lead, and it was almost as if the match was over before it had started.
It was a lethal combination for the Longhorns: They did very little well, and Penn State excelled at everything.
Lions setter Kristin Carpenter joked that she "ate her Wheaties" on Thursday morning, but it seemed as if the entire team did. In fact, maybe freshman outside hitter Deja McClendon had two bowls.
She is the AVCA's national rookie of the year and looked every bit of it against Texas. She had 11 kills on 15 attacks -- a monstrous .733 hitting percentage -- along with eight digs and three block assists.
"I thought she was phenomenal," Carpenter said of McClendon. "Everything I was throwing up to her, whether it was a good or bad set, she was putting it down. She was passing dimes. It's honestly everything a setter can ask for. I appreciate what she did tonight."
Blair Brown had 12 kills and Ariel Scott 10 for Penn State, which saw its record 109-match winning streak end back in September at the hands of Stanford. Penn State lost five matches total this season. That included a 3-2 defeat at Minnesota in the regular-season finale Nov. 27, but all that setback seemed to do was fire up the Lions for their NCAA tournament run.
Both Texas and Penn State had the advantage of hosting NCAA regionals this year, but on a neutral court Thursday, there wasn't any question which was the better team. The Longhorns, led by senior Juliann Faucette's 14 kills, don't have to feel badly, though, considering how unlikely it had looked earlier this season that they would even make the Final Four after graduation and injury losses.
With 11-time Big 12 champion Nebraska leaving the league for the Big Ten next year, the Longhorns will truly become the conference's top program. The loss of All-American Faucette is big, but Texas will get back standout hitter Bailey Webster, who sat out this season with a knee injury. This was Texas' third consecutive Final Four trip without a title, but the Longhorns are going to be staying in the mix of the nation's elite.
Meanwhile, Penn State has one more match left, against a foe the Lions know very well in the postseason. Penn State defeated Cal in the regional final the past two years and in the NCAA semifinal in 2007.
"Tonight we played five freshmen in the match against the pressure of a great opponent and a stressful environment," Penn State coach Russ Rose said. "You're not only playing the match that you have on the calendar, but you're always preparing for the future a little bit.
"There were some times during the season where we were exposed in areas all of those teams and matches just gave us a little more information on what we needed to do to be better."
Mechelle Voepel is a columnist for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.