There was determination behind the two straight aces Micha Hancock served to set up Penn State’s four-set victory over scrappy Wisconsin.
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"I didn’t want to go to five," said the setter known for her powerful left-handed jump serve. "I didn’t think anyone did."
Hancock’s second ace paved the way for Deja McClendon’s match point, a soft hit over the net that fell unanswered and the second-seeded Nittany Lions defeated the Badgers 3-1 Saturday night to win the NCAA championship.
Ariel Scott had 21 kills and Katie Slay added 14 in the 25-19, 26-24, 20-25, 25-23 victory. It was Penn State’s sixth NCAA volleyball championship and the team’s first since a historic run of four straight from 2007-2010.
"People say you can’t put it into words," Hancock said. "And you really can’t."
The Nittany Lions (34-3) dogpiled as streamers rained down at Seattle’s Key Arena. During the celebration, Wisconsin’s players returned to the court to applaud the champions.
The 12th-seeded Badgers (28-10) were the lowest seed ever to make it to the final match. Stanford won the title in 2004 as the 11th seed.
McClendon finished with 11 kills for Penn State, which is 6-3 overall in NCAA championship matches. Megan Courtney and Dominique Gonzalez each had 20 digs.
Dominique Thompson had 16 kills for Wisconsin and 5-foot-7 outside hitter Deme Morales added 15. The Badgers were making their first appearance in the championship match since 2000, when they fell to Nebraska in five sets.
"Everybody out there saw out there that as a team, we weren’t just happy to be playing in this match," Wisconsin first-year coach Kelly Sheffield said. "A lot of emotions in the locker room. They expected to win, they played to win. Not a whole lot of people thought we had a chance to do that, but our players did."
Wisconsin won the third set and strung together a key four-point run to go up 17-15 in the fourth. Ellen Chapman’s ace made it 22-19, but a missed serve by Annemarie Hickey — who had injured her shoulder earlier in the set — hurt the Badgers. Hancock’s ace narrowed it to 23-22, and Slay’s kill down the middle evened it.
Hancock had another ace before McClendon’s tap arced over the net and dropped untouched.
"Micah’s serve at the end? We had maybe a four-point lead, and she caught on fire," Wisconsin freshman Lauren Carlini said. "We couldn’t control her."
Hancock, a junior, finished with three aces.
"Penn State has the biggest weapon in college volleyball in Hancock’s serve," Sheffield said. "We battle like crazy to keep it off the floor. She hadn’t gone off on us too much this year, but tonight, they got some points in that rotation."
Penn State, led by national coach of the year Russ Rose, swept Washington in the semifinals. Surprising Wisconsin downed top-ranked Texas, the defending champion, in straight sets to advance to the final.
The Badgers came out with determination, going up 5-3 before the Nittany Lions, with a distinct size advantage, evened it at 9 on McClendon’s cross-court kill before pulling in front on 6-foot-6 Slay’s swing.
A five-point Penn-State run made it 20-15. Ellen Chapman’s tap over the net for Wisconsin held off set point until Scott’s kill to give the Nittany Lions 1-0 advantage.
Penn State went ahead 10-4 in the second after Hickey’s ace, but scrappy Wisconsin clawed back, pulling ahead 18-17 to cap an 8-2 run. Carlini’s kill put Wisconsin ahead 24-23, but Morales served into the net for the Badgers’ second straight service error, opening the door for Penn State, which closed the set with a pair of spikes from Scott to go up 2-0.
Trailing in the third set, Wisconsin pulled in front 13-12 on Morales’ kill before Carlini and Thompson combined for a block and Morales added another point-winning swing to make it 15-12.
Pushed by momentum, Thompson and Morales combined for the block to go up 23-17 and first-year coach Kelly Sheffield pumped his fist. Wisconsin claimed the set when Cerame Prieto served into the net for Penn State.
Hickey finished with 26 digs for Wisconsin.
"It hurt pretty bad," she said of her shoulder. "I could feel it come out of my shoulder and it was painful, but we were playing in such a high intensity, we were winning the game, all I wanted to do was win for my teammates. I didn’t want to come out."
The Nittany Lions beat Wisconsin twice in straight sets during the regular season. Overall, Penn State has a 43-7 advantage in the series between the teams, including a 3-0 advantage in postseason play.
"I thought it was a great match," Rose said. "All three times we played Wisconsin was a battle. They play great defense, play really hard, passionate kids. It’s hard to advance through the tournament. Texas was defending champion, they ran into a real hot team. We knew that was the case."