WEST LAFAYETTE, IND. - Minnesota volleyball coach Hugh McCutcheon makes no secret that he has hopes of building a national championship program.
It won't happen this season, but the Gophers may not be too far away.
Penn State survived a scare and earned a 3-1 victory over the Gophers in the West Lafayette Regional final on Saturday in front of 2,842 in Mackey Arena.
The Gophers were within two points of taking a 2-1 lead in the match, but Penn State rallied to win the third set en route to a 25-19, 19-25, 26-24, 25-18 victory that sends the Nittany Lions to the Final Four.
"They've been consistently the best team in the league and it showed again tonight," McCutcheon said. "I thought we were close and had our chances."
Minnesota rallied from a six-point deficit in the third set and eventually took a 23-21 lead. Three consecutive Penn State kills out of a timeout, however, gave the Nittany Lions a 24-23 lead. Gophers senior Katherine Harms' kill tied the match at 24, but Penn State put the set away with Deja McClendon's block and Ariel Scott's kill.
The fourth set was tied at 17 before Penn State won eight of the match's final nine points.
Harms had 10 of her team-high 17 kills in the second and third sets, while Tori Dixon added seven of her eight kills during that span.
"It's not just that they're good hitters, but they only made 18 errors in the match, which is an incredibly low number for a team that takes as many big swings as they do," Penn State coach Russ Rose said. "As [Purdue coach Dave Shondell] said Friday, and I agree, they're an incredibly physical team that has some big arms."
McCutcheon said Penn State's defense is so good that the Nittany Lions likely average getting one more attack dug per set than other teams.
"That may not seem like a big deal, but when it's 23-22, a ball that normally goes down doesn't go down because they can keep it up in play with good defense," McCutcheon said.
Penn State (33-2) nearly ran away with the match early, winning the first set 25-19 and taking a 7-3 lead in the second. Then a Gophers timeout turned the match, as the Gophers scored 14 of the next 16 points, using that momentum to win the set.
"We definitely weren't playing our game in the beginning," said the Gophers' Ashley Wittman. "It took some harsh words by some people to give us a boost. In the beginning we were letting them roll all over us and we weren't fighting, we were backing away. After the timeout everyone decided we weren't going to go down without a fight."
Minnesota will return six of the nine who played against Penn State, including Daly Santana (eight kills, 13 digs), Dixon (eight kills), Wittman (seven kills) and Alexandra Palmer (38 assists).
"Maybe we'll be one contact better," said McCutcheon, who finished his first season in Minnesota with a 27-8 record. "I think I have a better understanding of this environment and institution. I still believe we can build a national championship program in Minnesota. That's the hope for us."