Megan Courtney really enjoys playing Stanford.
After going for 18 kills in a five-set loss to the Cardinal earlier in the season, the Penn State junior erupted for 23 kills and hit .321 to lead the Nittany Lions back to the national championship match with a four-set win (25-16, 23-25, 25-22, 25-21) over Stanford.
The night was supposed to be about the return of Oklahoma kids Micha Hancock (Edmond Memorial) of Penn State and Inky Ajanaku (Bishop Kelley) of Stanford. Both received tremendous ovations during introductions at Chesapeake Energy Arena, but once the first ball was served, it was Courtney who stole the show and directed Penn State to victory.
Hancock put on a show of her own, dishing out 55 assists and putting down five important kills, but her highly touted serve was a bit off, resulting in five service errors.
“If you're going to lead the nation in aces, the downside is some days you're just not going to have much pop or whatever it is,” Penn State coach Russ Rose said.
Just like any point guard looks good when the players around them finish off passes, Hancock looked great because of the consistency of Courtney. The division of Courtney's 23 kills was perfect, with six kills in each of the first three sets and five in the fourth set.
That consistency was key for Penn State in the third and fourth sets, as it opened up the offense more against the Stanford defense.
“It's nice to know you can chuck the ball outside and someone's out there putting the ball down,” Hancock said. “So we've had a little struggle with passing early and she came alive. When we started passing better we were more comfortable. We could get the ball to the middle, I could chuck it behind me.”
For Stanford, it was frustrating to see another great performance from someone who had burned them before, but sometimes, the matchups just fall into place at the right moment.
“I think she must like to play us,” Stanford coach John Dunning joked. “I think she just played really well. I think Micha set her very well, had a lot of good swings. And sometimes it just happens right for you. She just attacked our block, and it worked.”
Freshman Ali Frantti also came up huge in her first Final Four action, putting down 16 kills on an impressive .375 clip. Frantti has been very good all season, but in the regional final against Wisconsin, she had just one kill and three errors on 10 swings. Thursday was an impressive bounce-back performance.
“For her to come out and play as well as she did is a terrific tribute to her and she's been sick and missing practices and she really had to battle out there today,” Rose said.
For Stanford, the first set dominance from Penn State changed the way the Cardinal approached the rest of the match. Those changes made things difficult for Stanford and even though the final two sets were tight, it was hard to see the Cardinal coming out on top.
“You build the system and it becomes dependent upon things,” Dunning said. “You have to put pressure on people and if you don't, then they're going to just go for it. And Penn State's pretty good at that.”
Brittany Howard led the Cardinal with 13 kills, while Jordan Burgess and Merete Lutz each 10. Ajanaku ended with nine kills but hit just .091.
The title match between the Nittany Lions and BYU, which defeated Texas in four sets in the earlier semifinal on Thursday, is a clash of cultures. It's the Cougars' first appearance in the national title game, but they're no strangers to the volleyball scene. Penn State on the other hand will be going for its seventh national title.
Even though the teams are coming from different ends of the volleyball spectrum, the old adages remain the same.
“I think we're just going to take it one step at a time one point at a time,” Frantti said. “BYU, we watched them earlier they're a really great team. We have a lot to look forward to.”
They certainly do, especially if Courtney and Frantti turn in performances like they did Thursday night. The consistency from those players pushed Penn State into the title game. Saturday, it could push a trophy into their hands.