When No. 1 Penn State and No. 3 Oregon met up in the semifinal of the Final Four, the safe money was on the Nittany Lions. Having won four national titles in the last five years, experience was certainly on their side. Oregon was playing in its first ever Final Four in program history so they were breaking new ground. One would have expected Penn State to play steady and Oregon to play some anxious, nervous ball.
In the first set, those predictions seemed accurate. It was close most of the way but Penn State pulled ahead at the end behind some very steady play. Oregon couldn't get much of an offense going as they hit five balls out of bounds and Penn State out-blocked them 6-0. The Nittany Lions looked really strong heading into set two.
But Penn State started slowly in the second set, falling behind early by five points as Oregon got its offense going in earnest. Player of the Year Alaina Bergsma was getting a lot of sets, but not putting a ton of kills away. Instead Oregon depended on the other outside hitter, Kat Fischer, who had a stellar match. The Nittany Lions were still within striking distance when it happened. Penn State setter Micha Hancock came down on Fischer's foot, spraining her ankle. She would come out of the game for a few plays, the momentum shifted, and the wheels fell off for the Nittany Lions from there.
Possibly feeling like they needed to be more perfect with their placement, Penn State's passing broke down and the hitters had trouble getting a rhythm with back up setter Kristin Carpenter. They had fallen behind Oregon by seven points by the time Hancock returned to the match with a freshly taped ankle. Penn State continued to struggle with a gimpy Hancock at the helm, falling behind by 10. Oregon was just five points away from winning the set when Penn State staged an incredible comeback behind the prowess of their big block. Penn State pulled within one at 23-22, but Oregon could not convert its two set points and sent the set into overtime.
With Penn State leading 27-26, Oregon got a gift from the refs. A line drive dig was chucked by the Ducks' setter. No call. Her set was spinning wildly and was way too tight so when Fischer took her swing, she hit the top of the tape with her hand. Again, no call. Had the refs caught that net (or the bad set before it,) Penn State would have won the set on that point and gone up 2-0 in the match. It would have been a dagger in the heart of an Oregon team that somehow would have managed to blow a 10-point lead with the opponent's starting setter injured.
Instead, the loss broke Penn State's back. Oregon took control of the match after the break and Penn State never lead again. Though Penn State kept it close in the third, tying the match up a couple of times, they continued to struggle passing, their block finally cooled off and Hancock never regained the mobility she had before the ankle sprain. Oregon was up ten points again in the fourth but this time Penn State was not able to recover. The Ducks ended up winning the last two sets 25-22, 25-19 to earn a trip to the final.
Oregon played a good match and deserved the win, but they were no match for Texas in the final, losing in straight sets to the Longhorns with a final score of 25-11, 26-24, 25-19. Penn State was denied an opportunity to play for its fifth championship in six years. They have to be left with a lot of 'what-ifs' after a match like that. What if the refs had called that net and they had gone up 2-0? What if their starting setter had not sprained her ankle? What would have happened had they gone up against Texas in the final instead of Oregon?
My guess is that if that net had been called, Penn State would have gone on to win that semifinal match. But the sprain Hancock suffered would only stiffen and swell when it cooled down and the chances of her being back to full strength two nights later would have been slim. Either way you cut it, Texas was leaving Louisville with the title. What ifs or no, this was the Longhorns' year. Something tells me that won't make the loss go down any easier for Penn State.