LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Oregon, Texas and Michigan know it will take a near-perfect effort to knock off top-seeded Penn State at this weekend’s NCAA volleyball championships.
Still, no one is handing the Nittany Lions the title.
Michigan and Texas have lost matches to Penn State this year, but all three challengers are confident they can not only play with the talented Nittany Lions, but have the ability to win it all.
Third-seeded Texas (27-4) will face unseeded Michigan (27-11) in tonight’s first semifinal, with No. 5 Oregon (29-4) facing Penn State (33-2) in the other. Michigan and Oregon are making their first Final Four appearances; Texas is making its fourth in five years.
Penn State doesn’t have many flaws and is seeking its fifth national title in six years. The Nittany Lions have won 36 of 39 sets since losing to Nebraska on Oct. 28.
“They’re ranked No. 1 for a reason,” Oregon coach Jim Moore said. “I said very early in the year that anybody who thinks they’re going to win a national championship has to go through Penn State.”
Asked what worries him about the Nittany Lions, Moore added, “what doesn’t worry me? They can do things physically that no one else can do.”
The Nittany Lions bring size and a lot of movement, but the Ducks counter with quickness and improvisation. Oregon’s attack, directed by all-Pac 12 junior setter Lauren Plum, features multiple offensive options similar to calling an audible in football.
The up-tempo strategy and flexibility has helped the Ducks lose just two sets in four tournament matches and achieve the best season in school history. Oregon’s approach also paid off against Penn State in last year’s season opener, as the Ducks beat a Nittany Lions team coming off their fourth consecutive title.
Though that match has little bearing on tonight, Moore said it was a breakthrough for his players’ confidence.
“It sort of let them know that they were good. It was special,” Moore said.
Penn State wants to make sure it survives and advances.
The Nittany Lions have been ranked fourth or higher in the AVCA Top 25 all season and reclaimed the top spot on Nov. 19. They’re coming off a regional run during which sophomore setter Micha Hancock broke Misty May’s NCAA Tournament record with 22 service aces.
While Hancock is part of a stout Penn State offense including Big Ten player of the year and NCAA regional MVP Ariel Scott (3.73 kills per set) and junior outside hitter Deja McClendon (3.24), the Nittany Lions’ defense might be their biggest strength.
“I don’t know if a lot of teams overlook defenses, but I know our team doesn’t,” said McClendon, a Louisville native. “Coach (Russ Rose) really emphasizes that defense wins matches. I think against Minnesota it really helped a lot. Defense really matters.”
Michigan takes the same defensive approach.
The Wolverines have been on a roll since a two-match losing streak in November. Michigan responded with a six-match surge, including a sweep of rival Michigan State in the regional semifinal and a four-set upset of second-seeded Stanford in Saturday’s final.
Michigan will try to impose its will during its semifinal match against Texas, which swept Florida and Southern Cal in the regionals. Since a 6-3 start that included a loss to Penn State, Texas has won 21 of 22 matches.