By Will Desautelle,
GoPSUsports.com student staff writer
UNIVERSITY PARK - Top-seeded Penn State was tested in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament, defeating the Howard Bison in four sets (25-10, 22-25, 25-15, 25-16). The Bison, however, gave the Nittany Lions a scare with their second set win and kept things interesting in the final two frames.
"I would like to recognize Howard on a great season and a terrific effort tonight against us," Penn State head coach Russ Rose said. "I thought they played hard. I thought they played well and it sure looked like they were having more fun on the other side of the net."
Sometimes being the number one seed in the tournament comes with added pressure, but Rose did not feel this was a huge issue for his team.
"We had a great practice yesterday, so I thought we were ready to play, but Howard is a different team to play because they're small, athletic and quick, and they hit the ball differently than maybe some of the players we're accustomed to seeing in the conference." Rose said.
Penn State's edge in size paid off, as the Nittany Lions out-blocked the Bison 11.0 to 4.0, but Howard countered with plenty of scrappy defense and some aggressive serving to get Penn State out of system.
"They play hard, they always play hard," Rose said. "I think [coach] Sean [Kupferberg] does a great job with his team. They play with great pride and play with a lot of enthusiasm. They earned the game and we didn't give them the game.
One of Penn State's greatest strengths this season has been the amount of experience in its veteran leadership. With so many upperclassmen to point the team in the right direction, the Nittany Lions have the ability to overcome these types of droughts.
"I think the players are aware of what they have to do. They understand the level of play that it takes to advance," Rose said. "Had we had a younger and more inexperienced team we could have lost our composure and lost the match."
Penn State found encouragement from other Nittany Lions stepping up alongside Simone Lee, who was named the Big Ten Player of the Year earlier in the week, but tallied just five kills on 18 attempts.
Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Haleigh Washington, had another excellent performance with 13 kills and five blocks. Tori Gorrell also added 11 kills and three blocks out of the middle spot, while Ali Frantti chipped in 12 kills and six digs.
"I didn't think Simone had a great night, but that can happen," Rose said. "I thought Ali passed really well. I thought Haleigh and especially Tori hit really well. I thought Tori was really our best attacker this evening."
Gorrell was also a key piece in Penn State's Big Ten title clinching win at Minnesota last weekend, contributing nine kills on 14 attempts with no errors. Playing behind Washington has not allowed her to put up big numbers this year, but she has been a valuable second middle for the Nittany Lions.
"It's unfAortunate that we didn't set her more during the year," Rose said. "She wasn't able to get recognized with any sort of [postseason] awards because we didn't set her enough and yet she was hitting close to .500."
That certainly didn't affect the way Gorrell played Friday though.
"All year the coaches have been saying find the open space and to move around," Gorrell said. Tonight I thought the setters did a really good job of finding me in the gap."
Penn State will take on the Pittsburgh Panthers Saturday at 7 p.m. in Rec Hall in the second round.
The Nittany Lions offered some high praise for the Panthers, noting they know what they'll need to improve ahead of the matchup.
think we need to serve a little bit more aggressively if we're going to get
Pitt into their out of system then our block has to be a lot cleaner,"
Washington said. "I thought our block was a little too sloppy tonight, which is
something we need to work on since Pitt is going to swing away. They have a lot
of good weapons and we need to make sure that we're disciplined on our block."