Final Four Recap
#1 Penn State Volleyball came into the semi-final match against the #5 Nebraska Cornhuskers Women’s Volleyball team having lost only once all year, to Nebraska in University Park, Pennsylvania. Aside from that match, Penn State had looked nearly invincible all year. By the end of the night on Thursday, December 14, Penn State was 0-2 for the season against Nebraska, and 33-0 against everyone else. Nebraska won 3-2 (25-18, 23-25, 24-26, 28-26, 15-11).
Penn State vs Nebraska: 0-2— NCAA Volleyball (@NCAAVolleyball) December 15, 2017
Penn State vs everyone else: 33-0#NCAAVB pic.twitter.com/Eq4BAHWwaN
This five-set thriller in Kansas City marked the five set marked the seventh straight win for the Huskers over the Nittany Lions, and moved the Huskers to 8-3 all-time in tournament matches over Penn State.
After a dominating first set, the Huskers made fans nervous as the Huskers led late in both the second and third sets before Penn State closed out both sets. In the fourth set, Nebraska took the first set point in the fourth set before Penn State then had two match points. The Penn State setter being tripped by a transitioning outside hitter helped Nebraska close out the fourth. The fifth was close early, but Nebraska pulled away and pretty well controlled most of the deciding set.
The two biggest keys to the Husker victory were serving and digging. The Huskers had ten aces to four for the Nittany Lions while Penn State had fourteen service errors where Nebraska had eleven. The Huskers kept points alive with 90 digs in the match to 76 for Penn State.
The leading server for the Huskers was libero Kenzie Maloney who had four aces with no errors. Outside hitter Annika Albrecht added two aces. Both Albrecht and Maloney were two of five Huskers with double-digit digs. The team was led by 23 from setter Kelly Hunter with Maloney digging 21 balls, outside hitter Mikaela Foecke getting 19 balls up, and both Albrecht and Defensive Specialist Sydney Townsend notching 13 digs.
Nebraska hit .249 while holding Penn State to .217. Foecke had 19 kills and hit .278. She was one of three Huskers with a double-double as Albrecht also had 13 kills and hit .103. Kelly Hunter was the other Husker with a double-double as she had 47 assists. Middle blocker Briana Holman hit .400 with 13 kills and outside hitter Jazz Sweet hit .375 with 12 kills for the dynamic Husker attack.
The teams blocked pretty equally on the night with the slight edge to the Huskers 13-12. Middle blocker Lauren Stivrins had nine blocks against Penn State (one solo, eight assist).
The second match of the night was also a five-set marathon with the #2 Florida Gators knocking off the #3 Stanford Cardinal to advance to Saturday night’s championship match.
The championship match will essentially bookend the season for these teams as they met in their second matches of the year back on August 26th in the VERT Challenge in Gainesville. That match the Gators won 3-2.
At that match in August, Husker senior setter Kelly Hunter didn’t play due to injury so the offense was run by redshirt freshman Hunter Atherton. It was the second match of the season and freshmen Sweet and Stivrins were still settling into their roles on the team.
Florida’s offense runs mostly through three hitters, but the attacker who sees the most sets is Carli Snyder. Snyder is also the Gators’ most dangerous server. However, she has a high-risk/high-reward serve. She had three aces Thursday night, but also four errors.
The other two Florida attackers that get a lot of sets are Rhamat Alhassan and Shainah Joseph. Having three hitters capable of terminating at any time is what helped Florida reach this point, but the Huskers have five dynamic attackers, including two in Foecke and Albrecht who are brutally effective out of the backrow.
That August meeting between these two teams is not a great barometer of what’s likely to happen Saturday night at the Sprint Center in downtown Kansas City. Both teams have made great growth since that early season match, but the Huskers have seen the maturation of Stivrins and Sweet throughout the year with both playing critical roles in knocking off Penn State on Thursday night.
Florida had to knock off two high-level Pac-12 opponents in a row to get here. A five-set match against the University of Southern California in the Regional Final punched Florida’s ticket to the Championship Weekend, and then it took five sets against the defending National Champion Stanford to land in the championship match.
The B1G is the most competitive conference in the country when it comes to volleyball. Nebraska has been tried and tested through the 20 match conference season, dropping only one match at Wisconsin in October and sweeping Penn State in Rec Hall in September, the first time that had happened to Penn State since 2003.
Both teams have more than earned this opportunity, and it’s hard to bet against either team, given their paths. Nebraska showed on Thursday how difficult it is to beat a team twice in a season, but Florida has beaten two very good teams in the last week to make it to this point. Picking against either is very difficult.
Nebraska should win this match. The team overall defends better, wins the serve-and-pass game (forcing more serve-receive errors of the opponent and passing their opponents serve better), and has a deeper pool of offensive talent. Florida has height and athleticism, but with all things being equal, the proximity of Kansas City to Lincoln and Omaha (illustrated by the red in the stands on ESPN Thursday night) will help tip the scales in the Huskers’ favor. The Huskers will win in four.
The match airs on ESPN2 Saturday night, December 16th from the Sprint Center in Kansas City. Coverage starts at 8:00 Central. John Baylor and Lauren Cook will have the call on Husker Sports Network radio affiliates. CornNation will be on the ground in Kansas City. Follow Ty @coachty6 on Instagram for live feeds from the Sprint Center.