Gophers coach Hugh McCutcheon liked what he saw last week, when his volleyball team went to Purdue and came home with a pair of five-set victories. Saturday, the No. 5 Gophers needed a little less time — but no less tenacity — to defeat Penn State 3-1 in their first match this season against a ranked opponent at Maturi Pavilion.
The eighth-ranked Nittany Lions roared back in the first three sets after the Gophers seized early leads, but the Gophers persisted for a 29-27, 25-23, 23-25, 25-18 victory. In a thrilling match, packed with long rallies, tightly contested sets and seesaw lead changes, the Gophers (7-0) outhit Penn State .250-.174 and recorded 67 kills to the Nittany Lions' 54.
Stephanie Samedy led the Gophers with 23 kills, and Regan Pittman took charge in the fourth set. Pittman had four kills and five blocks in the set, scoring the Gophers' final four points and ending the match with a stuff block.
"We talk about the idea of competing with composure, and that seemed to be a really good theme for us,'' McCutcheon said. "Penn State is really good, and they had a good plan.
"As the match was going on, we were trying to pick the lock a little bit. Our ability to be patient and stick with it was really good.''
Penn State (2-1) got a late start to the season. Its first four matches were postponed because of COVID-19 issues, including positive tests that put the Nittany Lions program on hold in late January.
They threw the Gophers a curve by using a different setter than they did in last week's pair of victories over Illinois. Gabby Blossom, who did not play at all last week, replaced Emily Oerther, forcing the Gophers to adjust.
The Gophers cruised out to an early lead in the first set, then withstood a Penn State rally to eke out a hard-fought win. There were four lead changes and 11 ties in the set, and it took five set points for the Gophers to finish it off. The second set played out in much the same manner.
Penn State clawed to a 22-21 lead on the arm of Jonni Parker, who had five kills and an ace in the set. Kills by Melani Shaffmaster and Samedy and a Penn State error put the Gophers at set point, and freshman Taylor Landfair — who tied her career high with 11 kills — closed it out.
In the third, the Gophers hit just .116 but still kept it close. Their defense, and Pittman, shined in the final set. The Gophers recorded eight blocks and finished the match on a 5-0 run.
Pittman said she "just played'' in the fourth set, without worrying about anything that might go wrong. She had four kills with no errors, including a back-to-back pair that put the Gophers ahead 23-18. The senior finished off the Nittany Lions with two solo blocks.
"I'm really proud of the way [Pittman] competed,'' McCutcheon said. "She made some great plays. It was really impressive. All season long, she's been able to help us in lots of different ways, other than just killing the ball.''
Penn State hit just .027 in the fourth set. Parker finished with 18 kills, 13 digs and a block.
The Gophers play the Nittany Lions again Sunday, as they continue a rugged section of their Big Ten-only schedule. This weekend's matches are part of a four-week, eight-match stretch against ranked opponents.
Composure and persistence will continue to be essential. Like McCutcheon, Pittman was pleased to see both, for the third match in a row.
"It says a lot about our maturity as a group,'' Pittman said. "We have the ability to be in tough situations and still come away with the win, even when other teams are doing everything they can. I'm really proud of this group.''