Nittany Lions' postseason run comes to close

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- The Nittany Lions are headed home.

The No. 1 Penn State volleyball team started strong, but was overpowered late in a four-set defeat to No. 5 Oregon in an NCAA tournament semifinal late Thursday night at the KFC Yum! Center.

The final scores were 25-21, 28-30, 22-25, 19-25.

Oregon will face No. 3 Texas in the final at 7 p.m. Saturday. The Longhorns clinched a berth in the national championship game by sneaking past Michigan in five sets in the semifinal.

After four consecutive NCAA championships from 2007-10, the Nittany Lions have now returned to State College empty-handed two seasons in a row.

Oregon coach Jim Moore opened the post-game press conference by letting out a sigh of a relief.

"Penn State is awesome," Moore said. "I'm probably not supposed to say this, but i have no idea how we won that match, because they were really good."

The finish wasn't pretty.

After an impressive run to capture the first set, Penn State lost a long, back-and-forth second set and started to falter under the pressure, its spirit beginning to sag.

Not much, but just enough.

The Nittany Lions (33-3) were fighting for the ninth national championship appearance in program history and a chance to tie Stanford for most all-time NCAA championships with six.

Instead, it will be Oregon making its first-ever appearance.

Though Penn State had not been defeated since a five-set loss to No. 4 Nebraska Oct. 28, and has lost just 3 of 39 sets in 12 matches since then, clinching the return trip was never going to be easy.

The Ducks gave the top-ranked Nittany Lions everything they could handle.

After falling behind, 20-19, late in the first set, Penn State coach Russ Rose called a timeout to re-calibrate.

And it worked like a charm.

The Nittany Lions exploded out of the break by registering five consecutive points and finally nailing the set shut with a powerful kill by junior middle hitter Katie Slay.

Sophomore setter Micha Hancock limped off the court with a leg injury early in the second set, taking away the centerpiece of the attack. Last weekend, Hancock broke the NCAA tournament record for aces in tournament play with 22, passing current U.S. Olympian Misty May-Treanor.

With Hancock out, Penn State fell behind, 20-10. Soon after she checked back in to add a spark, the Nittany Lions began a charge to eventually tie the set at 24.

Rose admitted after the game that Hancock was limited on the court and, with her injured, "I think we just lost a lot of confidence and steam at that point in time.

"Our best rotation is with Micha serving and hitting jump serve, and when that happened we didn???t have a good plan 'B,' " Rose said.

But after trading points back and forth, from set point to deadlock, Oregon used a service error and a kill to finally take the set, 30-28.

After the short halftime break, Oregon came out focused.

The Ducks held a slim lead for the majority of the third set before breaking a late deadlock to win the set and put a choke hold on the match.

In the pivotal fourth set, Oregon could do no wrong. Penn State, for its part, didn't help itself.

The Ducks held the Nittany Lions at bay, never letting their lead waver under a two-point cushion, sending aces down the stripe and beating Penn State point for point at the net.

After the Nittany Lions fought off three match points, junior setter Lauren Plum finished the set at 25-19 with a kill.

Junior outside hitter Ariel Scott led the Penn State charge with a game-high 18 kills, helped by Hancock's 45 assists. The Nittany Lions send off two seniors -- senior setters Kristin Carpenter and Marika Racibarskas -- with the disheartening defeat.

"It's always frustrating to finish your season on a loss," sophomore defensive specialist Dominique Gonzalez said. "But the worst thing would be to not learn from it."

In the other semifinal, Bailey Webster had 18 kills, Haley Eckerman added 16 and No. 3-seeded Texas overcame a 2-1 deficit for the victory against unseeded Michigan.

The Longhorns won, 25-11, 21-25, 23-25, 25-12, 15-11.

Texas (28-4) dominated the first and fourth sets and took a 4-0 lead in the final set before Michigan (27-12) tied it at 8. After a timeout, the Longhorns won three consecutive points and held off the Wolverines.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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