By Tom Shively, GoPSUsports.com student staff writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - A pair of back-and-forth sets saw Penn State women's volleyball in a familiar position. For the second night and a row, the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament split the first two sets of the match.
Penn State advanced to the NCAA regionals, but it wasn't easy by any means as the Nittany Lions prevailed in four tight sets, 25-20, 23-25, 25-22, 25-19.
The Nittany Lions expected nothing less from their second round opponent, as in-state rival Pittsburgh is as familiar as opponents come for Penn State, having met in both spring scrimmages and in last year's NCAA second round.
The ACC champions hung with the Big Ten winners the entire night, but especially in the first two sets. The first set saw 11 ties and three lead changes, with the Nittany Lions finally pulling away late to take a 1-0 lead.
Penn State started the second set off hot, only to fade late after a couple of service errors at critical junctures.
"I thought we made a lot of errors tonight," head coach Russ Rose said. "A lot of hitting errors, a lot of things that we need to be better at. We do this in the next round, we're in trouble."
The turning point in the match came midway through the third set. Both Penn State and Pittsburgh played evenly to an 8-8 score, but the Nittany Lions went on a 5-0 run and didn't look back for the rest of the set.
Haleigh Washington was the main catalyst of the rally, contributing a block or a kill on four of the five points during the run.
"Haleigh is an amazing player, so just giving her the ball nine times out of 10, you know she's going to score," senior Abby Detering said. "Getting that lead and having her scoring and doing so well had the team so pumped up."
Washington's presence at the net was felt all night, as her .483 hitting percentage and seven blocks helped the Nittany Lions secure victories in the third and fourth sets.
Overall, the Nittany Lions tallied 17 blocks on the match, but it was the timing of the blocks that helped Penn State pull out a victory down the stretch.
Penn State totaled 14 of its 17 blocks in the third and fourth sets, seemingly halting the Panthers at any time Pitt picked up momentum. In addition to Washington's seven blocks, Tori Gorrell had seven, Heidi Thelen had five and Simone Lee had four.
"We had a good game plan on what we wanted to do," Rose said in terms of the team's blocking strategy. "Early, both teams were doing a good job avoiding the block but I thought our size wore them down a little bit at the end. I thought Haleigh and Tori did a really nice job blocking overall."
Penn State clearly wore down the Panthers, as they hit only .268 and .057 in the third and fourth sets, respectively after hitting well over .300 in the first two frames.
Lee attributed the effort in the final two sets as a testament to will, understanding Penn State had been in a similar situation against Howard the night before, but was able to turn it around.
"We knew that we had to play better and it was going to be a battle," Lee said. "Pitt wasn't going to roll over. We had to pick up our passing just a little bit more and when we did that in the third and fourth sets, it really helped us be successful."
The Nittany Lions are very familiar with the word "success," in the second round, as Penn State advances to the NCAA regionals for the 15th consecutive year, hosting regionals for the first time since 2009.The University Park regional is now set, matching Penn State against Missouri after the Tigers upset No. 16 Wichita State in the second round. Should the Nittany Lions advance, it's an all-out Big Ten party as Penn State would play the winner of Michigan State and Illinois, after the Illini upset No. 8 Washington in five sets to round out the regional field.