By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE – About 20 minutes after it ended, the Pac-12 champions' 33-match march to winning a national championship, and its backyard, Huskies seniors Kylin Muñoz and Jenna Orlandini emerged with junior Krista Vansant from the locker room.
All three were in tears. Vansant dropped her head onto the right shoulder of Muñoz, whom these Dawgs all know as the "team mom."
Then, the three leaders of UW volleyball turned, lifted their heads and proudly strode 50 yards down the hallway into a press conference to show their character remains unbeaten.
"We just worked so hard for this all year for this," Vansant, the soaring All-American and Pac-12 player of the year said through sobs after Penn State had grounded her and Washington Thursday night. "It's just so sad not to put our best foot forward.
"I thought I could have played so much better tonight."
She wasn't alone. This was the wrong opponent and absolutely wrong stage for a completely off night.
Third-seeded UW had a rockin’ KeyArena crowd poised for a SuperSonics-like eruption. But it, like the Huskies’ normally brilliant play, never came. Many uncharacteristic errors and a dominant performance by second-seeded Penn State ended the Huskies' magical season in the national semifinals with a 14-25, 13-25, 16-25 loss.
Penn State will take on fellow Big Ten foe Wisconsin for the title on Saturday night at 6:30 p.m., after the Badgers upset defending champ and top-seed Texas in four sets in the evening's opener.
It was Washington's worst night against the best foe it's faced this season.
"It's tough. It stinks," coach Jim McLaughlin said after the abrupt -- aren't they all? -- exit from his fourth Final Four in 13 seasons leading the Huskies. "The amount of time these players put in, the investment, it's so high that the pain can be deep.
"And we're feeling it right now."
This city rose for this first NCAA Final Four in Seattle, with 14,975 standing, screaming and trying everything to spark the team from five miles up the freeway. It was the sixth-largest crowd ever for an NCAA volleyball match.
But the Huskies' usually mammoth game never showed up.
"We just didn't deliver. We weren't ourselves," Muñoz said, wiping her eyes with her hands. "That's the most disappointing thing. They are a very, very good team. But we weren't ourselves."
Kaleigh Nelson had eight kills for the Huskies (30-3). Vansant had seven. Muñoz had five kills in her final college match. At .500, she was the only Husky to hit higher than .333.
Vansant hit just .179 and Nelson .107, part of Washington’s sagging, season-low team hitting percentage of .117. The Huskies also had just three points off blocks, two fewer than its previous season low.
"We didn't respond well to adversity," said Orlandini, the libero who had six digs to finish her UW career with 1,974, 12th-most in Pac-12 history. "Got to give credit where credit is due. But we could have put more pressure on."
Penn State (33-2) hit a whopping .488, by far the best by a UW opponent this season, while winning for a national-best 24th consecutive time. The Nittany Lions advance to the national-championship match Saturday at 6:30 p.m. back at KeyArena against 12th-seeded Wisconsin. The Badgers upset top-seeded Texas in Thursday evening’s first semifinal.
The huge crowd was waiting – begging – to erupt for the home team through the first two sets. But Washington couldn’t get out of its own way for much of that span. The Huskies hit just .152 with zero block points in the first set, losing 25-14. They hit even worse in set two – a crushing .033 – and lost 25-13.
Those were the two largest margins of defeat in any sets this season for the Huskies.
UW came out for the third set after the break to huge roars from the anxious home crowd, which included new Huskies football coach Chris Petersen. And they played much better, stringing together points for the first time since they led 10-6 in the first set. But they just could not sustain rallies.
"It was a nightmare," McLaughlin said. "It was not fun in any way, shape or form.
"But that's part of the deal. ... Only one team at the end doesn't go through this. So you kind of sign up for it a little bit."
Washington didn't sign up for the punishment delivered by Penn State's Micha Hancock. The All-American was dominant on her serves, twice sending the Nittany Lions off on seven-point runs. The left-hander sent rockets low over the net that broke sharply late, like a left-handed pitcher with a 95-mph slider. Hancock had three aces in the first two sets, and it seemed like every other point to Penn State came off her serves. Hancock’s serves turned that 10-6 UW lead in the first set into Penn State winning 17 of the final 19 points of the set.
"It's just a different angle," Orlandini said of Hancock's cutting jump serve, after she faced most of those lasers from the back row.
The Huskies were denied their second national championship in eight years. They finished set wins short of fulfilling the goal Vansant and her teammates set among themselves 11 months ago: Winning it all, and in their backyard.
UW had made exactly zero Final Fours in 27 volleyball seasons before McLaughlin arrived in 2001 from Kansas State.
"I'm proud of what these players accomplished," McLaughlin said. "I told them that I love 'em.
"I looked at the pain on their faces. It's very deep. But it's good because they put so much time in, and I love them."
Penn State’s suffocating blocks and diving digs ensured Vansant could not come close to her Herculean, 38-kill, 30-dig night Saturday in UW’s rally from two sets down to beat USC.
Penn State has won four of the last six NCAA championships. The way the Lions played Thursday night, their fifth and seven years looks imminent.
"They play like that, they are going to win this thing," McLaughlin said.
And they walked out of the press conference and into the rest of their lives -- graduation, then potentially professional careers -- seniors Muñoz and Orlandini still had tears.
They also still had their heads held as high as their pride, showing impressive character through the very end of their impressive UW careers.
These seniors plus classmates Jenni Nogueras (14 assists in her finale) and Gabbi Parker (a reserve who faced her playing, struggling teammates sitting on the bench during a timeout in the third set and shouted, "We are ALL behind you right now!") went to one NCAA Sweet 16, one Elite Eight and this Final Four. This season they won just the third conference title in program history, with the second-most victories in any UW volleyball season in the NCAA era -- behind only the 2005 national champions.
"We were talking about that in the locker room. We set goals for ourselves, and we succeeded," Orlandini said. "Not losing at home, we accomplished that. Winning the Pac-12 title, and we did that ...
"Sorry," she said, unnecessarily, as she stopped to cry.
"Just going out with no regrets. And up until this last game, we showed that. Hey, we just didn't respond (Thursday) like we normally do in those situations. ... At the same time, looking back on it we did accomplish a lot."
The Huskies know that since UW won it all in 2005, each subsequent team will ultimately be judged against the program's standard of becoming a national champion.
"Our goal ultimately was to win the national championship," Orlandini said.
"At the same time, this was a step in the right direction. Hopefully there is something there that we can leave for last year's team."
As their character and pride following Thursday's finale exemplified, Orlandini and her senior classmates are leaving way more than that.