Amy Hughes, Special to NCAA.com
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Penn State’s bid for a fourth consecutive NCAA Division I volleyball championship remains alive and well following a four-set victory over Duke on Saturday.
The Nittany Lions beat the Blue Devils 25-19, 25-18, 23-25, 25-17 to win the Penn State Regional and advance to the Division I volleyball finals starting Thursday in Kansas City.
No. 4 seed Penn State is the highest remaining seed after No. 3 Stanford fell to No. 6 Southern California earlier Saturday.
Penn State meets the winner of the Austin Regional (Purdue or Texas) at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Sprint Center in the first of two national semifinals.
Three Nittany Lion players finished with double-figure kills, led by Big Ten Freshman of the Year Deja McClendon, an outside hitter, with 20 kills, five blocks and 10 digs. Big Ten Player of the Year and senior outside hitter Blair Brown contributed 21.5 points on the strength of 16 kills, 14 digs and seven blocks. Veteran middle Arielle Wilson added 12 kills.
For Duke, setter and ACC Player of the Year Kellie Catanach finished with 37 assists and set two of her teammates, Claire Smalzer and Sophia Dunworth, to double-figure kills with 10 and 12, respectively.
“We came out and played a great couple of games,” said Penn State head coach Russ Rose. “We got careless in the third game, but then we reasserted some things in the fourth. Deja [McClendon] had a great night. People will look at the box score and see that she had a great hitting night, but she received about two-thirds of our serves and was our best passer.”
McClendon was the star of Penn State’s opening set, hitting .583 with seven kills in 12 error-free attacks. With the score tied at 6-6, Penn State went on a five-point run and led from that point on.
The Nittany Lions also started well in the second set, jumping out to an early 5-2 lead. The Blue Devils chipped away and used a four-point streak to matters at 15-15, but Penn State responded with a five-point run of its own to take a 20-15 edge. Duke would score just two more points in the set and McClendon gave PSU a 2-0 lead heading into the locker rooms with her match-leading 10th kill of the evening.
“McClendon had a great night for them,” said Duke head coach Jolene Nagel. “There are some things execution-wise that we are certainly capable of doing better than we did tonight. I’m very proud of this team and how they worked together. They are a true team.”
After the break, Duke fought toe-to-toe with the three-time defending champions. The teams traded points to the media timeout with the Blue Devils holding a 15-14 lead. The Blue Devils capitalized on three Brown attack errors in a four-point stretch to take what seemed to be a commanding 21-16 lead.
But the Nittany Lions rallied with McClendon taking her kill total to 14 on the night before Nagel called her first timeout of the set with a 21-19 Blue Devil advantage.
When play resumed, the Nittany Lions closed the gap to a point and the teams traded the next four points before a McClendon kill tied the set at 23-23. A Becci Burling kill gave Duke its first set point, and the Blue Demons were able to convert on a Smalzer kill, sending the match to a fourth set.
Penn State roared out to a 10-3 lead to open the fourth set of the match and never looked back, closing out the match with a 25-17 triumph.