Volleyball loses thriller to Penn State

Minnesota nearly repeated its comeback effort from a year ago, but fell 15-12 in the fifth set.

Charlie Armitz

The No. 15 Gophers volleyball team rallied from two sets down, but lost to No. 6 Penn State in five sets Friday night at the Sports Pavilion.

Minnesota didn’t record a single block in the loss, while Penn State had 17.5 blocks.

Yet the Gophers (13-9, 6-7 Big Ten) stayed in the match — a credit to the team’s serving, defense, and a number of strong individual performances.

Sophomore Ashley Wittman had a career-high 31 kills, and freshman setter Kellie McNeil had a career-high 61 assists in her first home start as a Gopher.

Minnesota lost the first two sets 27-25 and 25-17, but won the third and fourth sets by scores of 25-23. Wittman had 12 kills in the fourth set, which the Gophers won after trailing 11-6.

“Tonight I thought [Wittman] took a huge step as the left-side attacker we recruited her to be,” Minnesota interim head coach Laura Bush said. “She really held her own out there in passing, in blocking — and obviously in attacking, with everyone in the world knowing that the ball was going to Ashley Wittman — as well as going behind the service line with confidence and putting a lot of pressure on Penn State.”

In the fifth set, Minnesota fell behind 8-5, then scored four consecutive points to take a 9-8 lead. The team looked primed to complete the same comeback they had a year ago — the Gophers trailed 2-0 at home to Penn State on Nov. 27, 2010, but came back and won the fifth set 23-21.

Poor passing undid them this time, however, and they fell 15-12 in the final set. The Nittany Lions won five of the last six points — one on an ace, one on a Hailey Cowles service error, and one on an overpass kill off a booming jump serve by Penn State’s Micha Hancock.

Wittman’s last kill came with Minnesota leading 4-3 in the fifth set. She played in the back row on 17 of the last 19 points.

Hancock, who leads the Big Ten in service aces per set, had three aces and two service errors. Bush said the team passed Hancock’s serves well, but struggled with the passing game overall.

The serving game was a different story — Minnesota had a season-high eight aces and just five service errors. Penn State had seven aces and tied a season-high with 13 service errors.

“Everyone did their job from the service line,” Bush said. “Ashley had a really nice run in [the fourth set] for us, and all of our servers did.”

Wittman, who hit .393, credited McNeil’s even distribution of sets for her success.

“We started off a little rough in the first two sets, but I think as everyone got more comfortable, we were spreading the ball offensively and that opened up many plays for me to make,” Wittman said. “I think [I got] myself into a rhythm and swinging aggressively even if I may have gotten blocked once or twice in a row — just continuing to be aggressive and moving the ball around, and not hitting the same shot every time.”

Wittman had 19 of the team’s 83 digs. Senior libero Jessica Granquist had 24 digs, and Cowles added 16.

The Nittany Lions had just 68 digs as a team, but consistently dominated the block with their height.

Despite the loss, Bush said her team’s performance was encouraging.

“It’s never fun to lose,” she said, “but I’m really excited about the step that the program took and the team took tonight in making a move toward how they want to finish the season. I’m pleased with a lot of performances that occurred tonight.”

The Gophers wrap up their home weekend against No. 22 Ohio State at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Sports Pavilion.