The Big Ten started the weekend with six teams still in the tournament, but thanks to some tough matchups and one cannibalistic quarter of the bracket, finished the weekend with only two. And yes, it’s probably exactly the two you’d guess... but more on that later. First, let’s see how things went down for each team.
Michigan State def. Illinois, 3-1
Two Big Ten feel-good stories met up in Round Three, played in State College, PA. Michigan State has played excellent volleyball all season, battling their way to a fourth-place finish in the conference, which is no small feat in the Big Ten. Led by veteran coach Cathy George, the Spartans hoped to advance to the Elite Eight for the first time since 1996.
Illinois, on the other hand, struggled early in conference play, but improved as the season progressed, becoming a team far better than their record. They didn’t get to the Sweet Sixteen the easy way, instead emerging victorious in two hard-fought five-setters in the first and second rounds.
In the end, however, the Spartans ended the Cinderella bid. After splitting the first two sets, MSU won handily in the third set, 25-17. But Illinois displayed the grit it has all tournament, pressing the fourth set to 28-27 before MSU earned match point off of a service ace dagger from Autumn Bailey. (That’s what you call a clutch serve.) Illinois went home, and MSU went on to face Penn State.
#1 Penn State def. Missouri, 3-0
This was pretty uneventful: PSU murdered an overmatched Mizzou squad, hitting .432 and holding the Tigers to .212. The Nittany Lions won 25-17, 25-18, 25-19.
#5 Nebraska def. Colorado, 3-0
After losing out on seeding to Kentucky, the Huskers took to the road for their third round match against their former Big 8/Big 12 foe. This didn’t seem to faze them, as they took it to Colorado in decided style, winning in three sets: 25-19, 25-11 (!!!!), and 25-21. The Huskers made it through the third round without dropping a single set in tournament play, the only team to do so.
#3 Stanford def. Wisconsin, 3-1
In the toughest Sweet Sixteen matchup among the Big Ten teams, Wisconsin had the misfortune to run up against defending national champion, Stanford. The Badgers won the first set 25-22, as they could almost not help doing after hitting .593(!!!) But after that, the tables turned, and Stanford’s match hitting percentage of .436, and the Cardinal won the next three matches 25-20, 25-21, and 25-19, sending the Badgers home and ending a quasi-disappointing season.
#10 USC def. #7 Minnesota, 3-0
The Gophers went toe-to-toe with the Trojans in the first two sets, though they fell 25-23 and 28-26. However, in the third set, disaster struck. Apparently, USC made a very good adjustment during the break, because they held Minnesota to .094 (eek) while hitting .314 themselves. Amazingly, Minnesota was still in the match at 17-14, even with that hitting percentage. But USC went on a run, and won the third 25-16, slamming the door shut on the Gophers’ season.
#1 Penn State def. Michigan State, 3-0
In a match that was overall closer than the sweep indicates, Penn State sent the Spartans packing while advancing, yet again, to the Final Four. MSU had the Lions on the ropes early, taking an 18-14 lead in the first set. But PSU went on a run to tie the set at 19, before winning 25-23. The second set found PSU dominant, winning 25-17. However, the Spartans regrouped during the break and gave valiant chase during the third set. Penn State prevailed though, with a 28-26 win.
No doubt MSU was disappointed, but they still had an excellent season, especially after bowing out of last year’s tournament a round or two earlier than expected. It’s just some bad luck to wind up in the quarter of the bracket that put them against two Big Ten teams in a row.
#5 Nebraska def. #4 Kentucky, 3-1
The “bad” news is that Nebraska finally dropped a set in the tournament. The great news though, is that they prevailed over Kentucky in a match on Kentucky’s hostile home court and earned themselves another trip to the Final Four (and perhaps making a bit of a point to the seeding committee as well...)
The Huskers started off hot with two, if not comfortable, at least not overly dramatic wins, taking the first sets 25-19 and 25-22. But then the break came. Kentucky, known as the “Comeback Cats,” and who had launched themselves into the Elite Eight with two five-set battles, certainly did not intend to go down without a fight. The Huskers trailed for much of the third, before bringing things to an 18-18 tie. Nebraska had FOUR opportunities to win the set (and the match), but Kentucky shut them down, and won the third 27-25.
The fourth set was tense, as there was a perception that the longer the match went on, the more the odds favored Kentucky. The Huskers started strong and took a 5-1 lead, but the match tightened from there, not favoring either team by more than three points until the score reached 20. However, the Huskers went on a late run, and this time on match point, Kentucky helped them out—the Wildcat serve went long, and the Huskers won, 25-21, advancing to their third straight Final Four for the first time in program history.
Check back on Thursday morning for a preview of Nebraska and Penn State’s Final Four match!