By NU Athletic Communications
Omaha, Neb. – Top-ranked Penn State saw one of its impressive NCAA records come to an end on Thursday night, but the Nittany Lions’ ultimate goals of an unbeaten season and a second straight national title remained firmly in tact, as they held off a furious rally by No. 4 Nebraska in a 3-2 NCAA Semifinal victory over the Huskers in front of an NCAA-record crowd of 17,430 inside the Qwest Center in Omaha, Neb.
The Nittany Lions, who hadn’t been pushed passed a third set all season, proved they could handle the pressure and fatigue factors of a fifth set. Trying to complete an improbable comeback, Nebraska led 10-8 in the final set before a poised Penn State team emerged from a timeout and strung together six consecutive points to essentially seal the match and the Nittany Lions’ NCAA-record 64th straight victory.
With the win, the 37-0 Nittany Lions kept their perfect season alive and moved within one victory of becoming only the sixth women’s volleyball program in NCAA Division I history to repeat as national champions.
Penn State, which features six All-Americans in its lineup, hit .305 on the night, while Nebraska attacked at a .247 clip. The Nittany Lions cruised through the first two sets, winning 25-17 and 25-18. Penn State hit .403 over the first two sets while Nebraska struggled to a .169 mark. In sets three and four, the Huskers hit .348, while holding Penn State to a .203 attack percentage.
The Huskers’ improved efficiency set the stage for the fifth set, which featured seven ties and three lead changes. During the decisive 6-0 run that turned Nebraska’s two-point lead into a four-point deficit, the Huskers had three errors. Penn State had three blocks in the fifth set after recording just five blocks through the first three sets. The Nittany Lions showed their poise by committing just two total errors in the fifth set, while Nebraska had five. That was the difference, as both teams totaled nine kills in the final set.
Fans can watch a replay of the Nebraska-Penn State match on the Big Ten Network (Ch. 610 on DirecTV) Friday morning at 9 a.m. and Saturday at 1 p.m
Nicole Fawcett had a match-high 24 kills on .268 hitting for Penn State, while Megan Hodge added 23 kills and 12 digs for a double-double. Playing in her final match, Jordan Larson paced three Huskers in double-figure kills with 17. Nebraska’s all-time leader in double-doubles, Larson added another one on Thursday, as she added 18 digs. Tara Mueller finished with 15 kills, with Lindsey Licht adding 13.
After winning the first two sets, Penn State extended its streak of consecutive sets won to 111 in a row. The first set was tight early, as neither team led by more than one point until the 18th rally. From there, Penn State was able to pull away, starting with a run of four consecutive points to take an 11-8 lead. The Nittany Lions then won five of six points to take a 19-14 lead and Penn State took the set by winning five of the final six rallies. The Nittany Lions hit .371 in the set, led by six kills from Hodge and five from Fawcett. The Huskers spread the ball around with five players recording two kills, but Nebraska hit just .206.
Nebraska scored six of the first eight points in set two and led for much of the early going before Penn State came back. A 3-0 run gave the Nittany Lions their first lead at 15-13. Leading 18-16, Penn State scored six of the next seven points to set up six straight set points. Two rallies later, Hodge ended the set with her 13th kill of the night. The Nittany Lions had only two more kills than the Huskers in the set, but Penn State hit .444 compared to a .129 mark by Nebraska. PSU also totaled three blocks, as Nebraska was error-prone, finishing with eight attack errors and three service errors in the set.
The Huskers again came out strong in set three, jumping out to a 4-1 lead. Nebraska’s lead grew to as large as five before Penn State began to close the gap. The Nittany Lions pulled to within three at 11-8 before the Huskers erupted on an 11-1 run that gave Nebraska a 22-9 advantage. The Huskers had their first set point at 24-12 and after Penn State scored three straight points, a Nittany Lion attack error gave Nebraska the win. The Huskers limited their errors in the set, hitting .407. Penn State hit just .103 and finished with eight errors.
After falling behind early in the previous two sets, Penn State jumped out to a 3-2 lead in set four. The Nittany Lions continued to hold the Huskers at bay until Nebraska used a 6-0 run with Rachel Schwartz on serve to pull in front, 16-14. The teams traded side outs until Penn State scored two straight points to tie the set at 19. Nebraska responded with two straight points of its own, as Mueller’s ace put the Huskers in front 21-19 and forced a Penn State timeout. Following the timeout, the Nittany Lions won an amazing rally to force a Husker timeout. The teams again traded side outs before a Larson kill gave Nebraska a set point at 24-21. Penn State was able to side out before a Larson kill sent the match to a fifth and deciding set.
In set five, each team sided out until Penn State posted three straight points to take a 5-3 lead and force a Nebraska timeout. A block pushed the run to 4-0 before three straight Husker points tied the set at six. Nebraska won a long rally to earn an 8-6 advantage as the teams switched sides of the court, before Penn State tied it again. Nebraska then ran off back-to-back points to force a Nittany Lion timeout with the Huskers in front 10-8. Penn State came out of the timeout with six straight points to set up a match point and Hodge closed out the match two rallies later with a kill.
Nebraska, co-champions of the Big 12 Conference, ended its season with a 31-3 record. The Huskers had their 96-match winning streak in the state of Nebraska snapped, as Nebraska fell for the first time in 14 all-time matches at the Qwest Center.