The Gophers have endured recent hardship, losing three of their past six games. But Penn State’s senior class had to endure a three-year Big Ten title drought for the powerhouse program.
And that scale is what made the difference in the Gophers’ four-set loss Saturday.
“The reality is, we’re a young team,” Gophers coach Hugh McCutcheon said of his four-senior roster compared to Penn State’s seven.
“We played a group that’s pretty senior heavy, there, right? And you could tell, they appreciated the value of each French fry. And we were working on it, but we haven’t had our heart broken like they’ve had their hearts broken.
“And over the last few weeks, yeah, it stung. It hurts, and it should.
“From that, you learn to be a little more resilient. You learn to be a little more prepared. You learn to be a little more connected to the play.”
The No. 8 Gophers lost to No. 1 Penn State 29-27, 25-20, 24-26, 25-20 at Maturi Pavilion before an announced sellout crowd of 5,343 to close out their regular season.
The team finished 26-5 overall and 15-5 in the Big Ten for third place.
The Nittany Lions, who were a unanimous pick for No. 1 in the most recent American Volleyball Coaches Association’s poll, improved to 29-1 and 19-1 for a share of the conference title with Nebraska, the only team they lost against this season.
The Gophers find out at 8 p.m. Sunday their seeding for the 64-team NCAA tournament field on ESPNU. The Gophers have reached the Final Four the past two seasons.
Despite jumping out to an early 10-5 lead in the first set, the Gophers couldn’t close out Penn State.
The tight set spawned 12 ties and 10 lead changes, going to several set points. The Nittany Lions then dominated the second set, improving their hitting percentage from .113 to .378.
The Gophers came out of the break with some verve, though, as they hit .325 to Penn State’s .289 and maintained a five-point gap for much of the third set.
Penn State did manage to overcome that with a late 6-1 run to level the score at 24-24. But kills from freshman opposite Stephanie Samedy and sophomore outside hitter Brittany McLean gave the Gophers the set and hope for a comeback.
McCutcheon said the third set was offensively a bit cleaner for his team with better execution and passing, but all the sets were close.
“Our team competed hard, and I think we battled,” McCutcheon said. “Everyone wants to finish with a win, we get that. But you don’t always get what you want.
“But what you hope for is that at least you’re going to compete, and I thought our athletes did a really good job of that tonight.”
The Nittany Lions hit .273 overall, the Gophers .221. Penn State had 18 blocks to the Gophers’ eight.
Penn State senior middle blocker Haleigh Washington, who leads the nation in hitting percentage, hit .514 and recorded 21 kills. Senior outside hitter Simone Lee had 20 kills, including 10 in the final set.
Samedy led the Gophers with 22 kills and also had 13 digs; sophomore outside hitter Alexis Hart contributed 19 kills.
Samedy said Penn State taught her team “a lot of lessons” throughout the game that the Gophers will take into the NCAA tournament.
“It’s good to start again,” Gophers senior libero Dalianliz Rosado said.