Posted by: Aly Edge | 13 December 2012

NCAA Final Four: Penn State vs. Oregon

First of all, and pardon my French, but internet, you fucking rock. This was the most-viewed day in the history of my blog, with more than three times more hits than the previous record-holder. I hope you like what you’re seeing, and will continue to visit. The women’s college volleyball season may be ending soon, but that doesn’t mean the volleyball world stops spinning, and The Net Set will be there for every moment of it.

So, much like the first semifinal, any and all preambles have already been said. Ball Don’t Lie, so it’s time to Ball.

Penn State took the first lead of the match at 5-3 with a right-side double block led by their star setter Micha HancockMegan Courtney followed it up with a joust on the left side. Oregon tried a slide play to Ariana Williams on the left side, but Penn State had none of it, sending back a vehement rejection to extend their advantage to 7-3, at Oregon’s timeout.

Back from the brief break, Pac-12 Player of the Year Alaina Bergsma got the Ducks the sideout to 7-4. Sideline reporter Maria Taylor, who earlier this season proved herself quite competent as a color commentator, reported that Oregon coach Jim Moore instructed setter Lauren Plum to distribute the offense to all options and go for pipe sets (over-the-head sets to center-back) to Bergsma when in that rotation.

The Ducks got lucky when Hancock, easily the strongest server on the court when she’s on her game, rotated out after just one serve. Brenner’s kill brought the Ducks back within a point at 10-9. Amidst a series of sideouts, Deja McClendon‘s back row kill made it 12-11 Penn State, and the Louisville crowd loved seeing a point from their hometown girl.

But the set ran even after that. There were ties at 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, and 17. There was a longish rally on 17-all where Ariel Scott took a big swing and got a free ball out of it, but ended up hitting it long. After a tie again at 18, a service ace for Penn State libero Dominique ‘Dom’ Gonzalez got it to 19-18, but it was tied once again at 19. The slide play to Williams worked when they ran it this time, to give Oregon the one-point advantage at 20-19. Penn State coach Russ Rose then had a pretty hair trigger on his timeout, calling it while down only a point, but whatever he discussed worked. The Nittany Lions came out of it to take three in a row to go up 22-20, and it was timeout Oregon.

A net violation gave Penn State a three-point edge, and another try on the slide play with Williams ended with a smothering block to make it set point. The Ducks staved off one, but Katie Slay ended proceedings with a right-side kill at 25-21.

The Ducks ran out to a quick 3-0 advantage to start set number two. When the Nittany Lions managed to side out, it got them to what should have been a favorable rotation for them, with Scott in the front row and Hancock at the service line. But Hancock again rotated out after just one serve, and this time it was her own fault, with a big service error.

At 6-3, the Ducks ran a nifty play with a nifty player, undersized outside hitter Katherine ‘Kat’ Fischer. Fischer emerged from behind the setter Plum to take a ball set to the right side – and found nothing and no one opposing her. Seriously. There was no block at the net. There were no defenders on the area of the court right in front of her. You couldn’t give someone an easier shot in practice. And Fischer didn’t whiff the layup – she converted the easy kill chance. Oregon played some awesome defense on 7-3, with a diving save arriving at the setter Plum to perfectly set up a left-side kill. Coach Rose called time trailing 8-3.

One of the major turning points of the match occurred on the rally ending 9-4. Penn State’s star setter Micha Hancock landed on Kat Fischer’s foot from across the net, turning her right ankle. She collapsed to the ground in pain, and the arena went quiet. She got up under her own power to leave the court, still in obvious pain. Coach Rose brought in Kristin Carpenter, ironically the woman Hancock had displaced to take the starting position. Carpenter is a senior and was the Nittany Lions’ regular setter in their last run to the national championship two years ago. She can get the job done no question, but setting isn’t all just about raw skill. It’s also about a symbiosis between setter and hitter. You can have talent at both positions and still not have much of an effective offense. Most team sports are like this to some degree.

Carpenter almost immediately made her presence felt, getting a solo block, but it only closed the Nittany Lions to within 6 at 11-5. The lead extended to 8 at 14-6 as Brenner led a double block of McClendon, the Duck block all of a sudden coming to life (as if to prove my point). Penn State closed to within 14-9, but just as quickly it was back to 8 at 17-9. Trainers attended to Hancock’s ankle on the sidelines in the meantime. It was already taped up for the match, and they taped her up some more.

Now, this was decision time for Coach Rose, and I’d be interested to know why he made the call he did. Karch Kiraly suggested leaving Carpenter in, on the broadcast. Carpenter has worked with these hitters before, and Kiraly suggested leaving her in to work out any kinks in a second set that looked like it was already as good as lost in order that she be more effective running the offense in the third and prospective fourth sets. But Coach Rose elected to reinsert Hancock, and she came in after a Nittany Lion timeout on 17-9.

And at first, it looked like a genius decision. Oregon ran out to 20-10, and from there the Nittany Lions ate up the deficit. At 20-14, with all four points having come off blocks, Oregon took a timeout. Hancock did set a kill after the timeout, to 20-16, and Oregon’s second timeout. The run, on the serve of the libero Gonzalez, finally ended with Bergsma claiming a sideout at 21-17. Oregon ran their attack straight at Hancock on 21-18, and the Big Ten Setter of the Year had obviously problems jumping for a block attempt, leading to an easy kill. Later, she was clearly hobbled in a right-side joust, to put Oregon on the cusp of set point at 23-20.

But the Nittany Lions weren’t done. Brenner’s hitting error brought Penn State back within a point. She got the Ducks the first set point with a kill on the next rally, but McClendon staved it off. That brought Hancock to the service line. She was unable (or perhaps unwilling, but I’m gonna go with unable) to perform her usual massive jump-serve, instead going with a ‘hopping’ float serve. Scott led a right-sight double block of Bergsma to save the next set point. And the rally after, to shockingly give the Nittany Lions set point after having trailed 20-10. The Ducks got a big block of Scott on the left side to level the set at 25-all.

This set was fun to watch for me, as a largely neutral observer (I watched with a group of Oregon fans) but I can only imagine how it toyed with the emotions of those invested in it. Penn State got another set point at 26-25 with McClendon from the right side, only for Scott’s hitting error to knot the set again.

At 26-all came another turning point in the match, when Plum was called for a double hit in the back row. This gave Penn State their third set point, at 27-26. On the ensuing rally, Oregon got away with murder. One of the most blatant double hits you’re ever going to see (on Penn State’s set point, remember), went uncalled. Kiraly called it “five times worse” than Plum’s set which was called for the ball-handling error. And the hitter who received the pass? Yeah, she touched the net on her way down from the swing. Neither violation was called, and Penn State would not get another set point. Coach Rose, a man who does not normally wear his heart on his sleeve, was up and shouting.

A ball-handling error got Oregon to set point again at 28-27. After a few more sideouts, the Ducks finally ended the set at 30-28.

Penn State came out in the third set in the same rotation setup as they had in the first two, with Hancock at the service line. The first rally of the third set was one of the longest of the match, ending with an Ariel Scott long hit. On the next rally, Kat Fischer again found nothing and no one opposing her on defense for an easy. After that 2-0 start, it was very even, as the two sides traded points. Hancock was visibly favoring her injured ankle in this set.

Oregon established a four-point lead at 10-6 with a nice kill from Brenner, her 14th of the match. McClendon closed the gap from the service line, acing Oregon libero Haley Jacob twice in the set to close to 12-10. But Oregon responded with another run of their own to go up 15-11 at the TV timeout, after the slide to Williams found success again. Penn State were able to close to within two at 16-14, but Bergsma came up big again from center-back to side the Ducks out to 17-14. A little later, she took a long swing but a touch was called at the net. McClendon would have been the only player to touch it, and the crowd booed. They were a bit partial to Penn State and especially to McClendon in this match.

In a veritable blink, Penn State closed the gap yet again – the third set was one of several quick runs. A solo block from Nia Grant and still another ace for McClendon against the Oregon libero knotted it at 19. The set was tied again at 20 and 21. At 21-all, Penn State’s offense suffered a rare total breakdown. With Scott audibly calling for the set from Hancock, the ball just….fell in. It’s unclear what happened, but you have to think Hancock’s injury had something to do with it. Fischer got a big couple of kills, back-to-back, to make it set point at 24-22, and another successful execution of the slide play with Williams gave it to the Ducks at 25-22.

To open the fourth set, the Nittany Lions made a slight change to their rotation. Rather than being the first to serve (or first to serve after a sideout), Hancock’s position in the rotation changed to make her the last to serve.

But this set was a big one for the Ducks. They ran out to 6-2 straight away with three aces in that span, as well as other serve reception mistakes by the Nittany Lions. Taylor reported that Carpenter was “bugging” Coach Rose to be let back into the match, saying “Micha can’t jump.”

The Ducks scored a fourth ace of the set to make it 9-3. Their serving game came up huge in this set, obvious to say. Penn State staunched the run with a timeout, and got within 3 at 9-6, but it was simply delaying the inevitable. To her credit, Hancock just kept fighting, scoring an easy dump to make it 11-7, but maybe it should have been taken out of her hands. With a heavy hit and a big smile, Brenner’s 16th kill of the match made it 13-7 Ducks.

Yet another ace gave the Ducks a 10-point lead at 19-9. The score reached 20-10, the count at which Penn State made their big run in set 2. They made a little run, but Bergsma sided it out much sooner, breaking it up at 22-14. The Oregon setter Lauren Plum got a dandy solo block on McClendon to make it 23-14, and then Brenner brought it to match point at 24-16. The Nittany Lions sided out to send Hancock to the service line. And for a little while, the Ducks tried to give it away, with three straight hitting errors closing the gap to 24-19. But after the timeout, Plum sent the Ducks to the national championship with a silly little dink.

#5 Oregon d. #1 Penn State (21-25, 30-28, 25-20, 25-19)

The story of the match is obviously Hancock’s injury. Take nothing away from the Ducks, they played a fine match, and as I told the Duck fans I watched it with, it was still as open as it ever was after the Nittany Lions won set 1. To be sure, the Ducks took most of their big set 2 advantage before Hancock’s injury happened.

But from that point on, the Ducks didn’t beat the Nittany Lions at their best. They’ll take it and make no apologies, and no one should ask any of them, but it’s a bit of a shame for Penn State. Because they’ll never really know if they could have won this national championship if not for a freak occurrence.

Coach Rose has surely, by now (it’s a few hours after the match as I post this) been asked why he went back to Hancock rather than sticking with the perfectly capable Carpenter. I’m guessing he went with coach-speak, “dance with the one who brought you” etc. But no matter what, it’s a decision that will be second-guessed. And for arguably the greatest active coach in college volleyball, it’s a rare (if not unheard of) instance where he might indirectly be to blame for the loss.


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