Chaos swirled all around them Saturday, with a sold-out crowd announced at 5,535 screaming and roaring with every Gophers point. As much as they appreciated the support, the Gophers knew they would not beat top-ranked Penn State unless they maintained an oasis of calm on the volleyball court.
That’s a favorite theme of coach Hugh McCutcheon, who schools his team on controlling its emotions no matter the circumstances. But once Sarah Wilhite smashed the ball through the Nittany Lions for match point — securing a stunning sweep of the two-time defending NCAA champs — the No. 4 Gophers let their emotions fly. The 25-23, 25-20, 25-21 victory at the Sports Pavilion ended a five-year, 10-match losing streak to Penn State and extended their school-record win streak to 14 matches.
The Gophers (23-3, 15-1 Big Ten) supplemented their poise with consistency and balance to knock off a powerhouse that had lost only 10 sets all season. Wilhite finished with 12 kills, Daly Santana 11 and Hannah Tapp 10. They were aided by the precision of freshman setter Samantha Seliger-Swenson, who put up 35 assists. And they also served up seven aces.
Penn State (24-3, 13-3) was as inconsistent as the Gophers were steady. The Nittany Lions followed brilliant stretches with subpar ones, committing numerous errors and looking unsure of themselves at several points in the match. The loss ended a nine-match win streak and marked the first time Penn State was swept by the Gophers since 2003.
“We take it one point at a time,’’ said Santana, who had three aces and registered six of her kills in the first set. “It doesn’t matter if we have a lead. You’ve got to expect they’re going to bounce back, and you’ve got to be ready for that.
“It’s a hard skill to work on. When you get to that moment, it’s always big.’’
It didn’t get much bigger than Saturday’s much-hyped match. The Pavilion was packed to the rafters, with a sound level that left ears ringing. The Gophers used some of that energy to fuel their attack, but they never allowed themselves to get swept away.
Santana’s six kills powered the Gophers through the tense opening set. They used a 6-0 run to break a 10-10 tie, and when Penn State rallied to tie it at 21, a Santana kill gave them the lead for good as Molly Lohman closed out the set with a kill.
That pumped up an already confident home team, and the Gophers ran up a big early lead to take the second set behind eight kills by Hannah Tapp. During a 6-0 spurt that put them ahead 18-8, Hannah Tapp and Seliger-Swenson combined for two big blocks. Penn State pulled within 22-19 late in the set, but a block by Paige Tapp and Seliger-Swenson pushed the Gophers to set point, and Sarah Wilhite’s smash gave the Gophers a 2-0 lead.
Wilhite stepped up in the third set with six early kills to boost the Gophers to a 15-14 advantage, once again forcing Penn State to play catch-up. Two kills by the Nittany Lions’ Ali Frantti and an ace by Haleigh Washington tied it at 18, but the Gophers’ cool — and a handful of Penn State errors — locked up the victory.
“The Penn State program has been the benchmark for seemingly forever,” McCutcheon said. “To be able to get out there and get a win was great. I’m proud that our athletes got to play the volleyball they’re capable of playing, in a big match and a big environment, and get it done.”