Just when you thought you’ve seen it all, Penn State faced match point at Princeton tonight. Not once, not twice, but eight times.
However, after losing two of the first three sets, the No. 8 Nittany Lions ultimately won the fourth set 37-35 in overtime, and overcame a valiant effort from the Tigers in five sets (23-25, 25-22, 23-25, 37-35, 15-12). This was the first EIVA match to go into a fifth set this year for Penn State, which is 17-3 overall and now 10-0 in conference play.
Penn State struggled with errors throughout the match, but this was especially the case in the first-set win for Princeton.
“We did not hit the court,” head coach Mark Pavlik said after the match. “I think in game one, we made 14 unforced errors, serving and hitting. It really gave them the opportunity to sneak out game one and they did.”
In all, Penn State committed a startling 40 attacking errors en route to a .277 hitting percentage, much lower than the Lions tend to hit against EIVA teams.
Penn State bounced back in set two with a solid .320 hitting percentage. Junior Tom Comfort, who replaced redshirt freshman Nick Goodell off the bench, recorded five kills in this set to lead the Lions.
But, Penn State’s worst attacking set of the night followed, as the Lions hit a lowly .077 in the third set with 11 attacking errors. Led by Cody Kessel with six kills, Princeton made Penn State pay in this set and took a 2-1 lead in the match.
This was the first time Penn State had trailed in an EIVA match all year.
The fourth set turned out to be one of the most exciting games of the year for Penn State. The Lions faced eight different match points, starting at 24-25, all the way up to 32-33.
“It was one of those things where it would have been very easy to lose your composure, especially when they’re not playing well and [we could] start to press,” Pavlik said.
But rather than falling prey to pressure, Penn State clawed back to eventually take the set 37-35, leading the match to a decisive fifth set.
Pavlik said Sunder, who had 12 hitting errors in the match, didn’t have a good night overall. However, after having just nine kills in the first three sets, Sunder led the Lions with an incredible 14 kills in the extended fourth game.
Penn State wasted no time in fifth set, when Pavlik said sophomore Jace Olsen started the game off with six excellent serves to jump out 6-0.
Once again, Princeton made a game out of it — it was just 14-12 when the Lions succeeded in attaining match point — but Penn State ultimately won the match on a kill from freshman Aaron Russell.
Pavlik said Russell, who hit .722 on 18 attempts, was the lone standout player for the Lions. This was a match in which four of Penn State’s main contributors hit below .100 — Nick Goodell, Peter Russell, Nick Turko and Tom Comfort.
Still, despite many down nights for Penn State players, the Lions escaped with a win.
Pavlik credited this effort in large part to the competitive instincts his team displayed.
“When you look at that and you still win in five?” Pavlik said. “Then it means we competed pretty hard, so I’ll take that.”