That 15th Big Ten title is so close.
Behind a steady attack of blocking, a dose of effective shooting and a shot of aggressive serving, Penn State is one win away from clinching a share of the Big Ten title, with four matches to play.
The No. 2 Nittany Lions (25-2, 15-1 Big Ten) defeated Northwestern (15-12, 4-12) in a convincing fashion Saturday night, winning each of the three sets by the same score, 25-16.
While the 2012 season has often seen Ariel Scott, reigning Big Ten Player of the Week, put on a “one-woman show” on offense — leading the Lions in kills 15 of the 27 matches — the team put on as balanced attack as ever Saturday.
Nia Grant and Deja McClendon shared the team lead with eight kills, Scott chipped in seven, while Katie Slay, Megan Courtney and Micha Hancock combined for 16.
However, much like the kills coming from each direction, so did the errors.
“I think we’re feeling good … but I think we also need to work on keeping the errors down,” Scott said. “When you face a good team just like tonight, it’s definitely going to make an impact.”
The team registered 21 total errors, including four each from Hancock, Courtney and McClendon.
While coach Russ Rose usually focuses on his team’s flaws more than anything after a match, a somewhat cheery Rose found himself happy that his entire roster of 15 players got time on the court.
“We could pad the stats, and we could set every ball to [Ariel] Scott, and let’s see if she leads the conference in kills,” Rose said. “But I want to have a chance to win, and it’s not about one player. It’s about a team.”
On the opposite side of the net, it was about one player.
Stephanie Holthus, the Wildcats’ star outside hitter, was expected to be a thorn in the Lions’ side and proved to be one.
“She’s a terrific talent. She does so many things well,” Rose said of Holthus. “I’ve watched her play since she was in club ball, so I’m a fan, not just an opposing coach.”
While Holthus did register a match-leading 11 kills, her hitting percentage was just .182, well below her season average of .230.
Appalling to Northwestern fans, but appealing to the 3,211 Penn State fans in attendance, the Wildcats’ team hitting percentage of .055 paled in comparison to the Lions’ .320.
Despite the overall outcome favoring the Lions by a fair margin, there were points — albeit far from the point of desperation — when the Lions fell behind; notably the 4-1 start to set one, and the Wildcats’ ability to produce rallies after timeouts.
The key to combating the Wildcats’ rallies, according to Scott, was confidence.
“I think we stayed confident the whole time, which is what we need to do,” Scott said. “We stayed pretty consistent. There were times when we weren’t playing our best, but we did a good job of getting back in the game.”