The turnaround began with Stanford trailing by four points late in the second set of its NCAA women's volleyball Elite Eight match against Penn State on Saturday night at Maples Pavilion.
Penn State completely dominated the first set and was well on the way to taking a 2-0 lead when sophomore Meghan McClure recorded one of her 12 kills to spark a 9-3 run that completely turned the match around, got the crowd of 3,256 involved and led to Stanford's third straight trip to the Final Four, which will be held Thursday and next Saturday in Minneapolis.
"Coach told me to go high and stay strong," McClure said after top-ranked and overall No. 1 seed Stanford defeated the No. 8 Nittany Lions, 18-25, 25-23, 25-20, 25-16, in a battle between the two most successful women's volleyball programs in NCAA history. "We were playing not to lose instead of playing to win. We needed to stop playing scared."
Enter junior Kathryn Plummer, two-time National Player of the Year, who recorded five of Stanford's final seven points of the set, shifting the momentum irrevocably to the Cardinal. She netted 10 of her game-high 23 kills in the second set, committing one error in 17 swings. She hit .529 in the set and .383 for the match.
"She asserted her will on the match," Stanford coach Kevin Hambly said. "That's what makes her the Player of the Year."
Plummer, with setter Jenna Gray and libero Morgan Hentz, is part of a leadership group that helped keep things together through the early adversity and led the Cardinal (32-1) out of the darkness.
"After losing the first set we had to restart our mentality," said Plummer, named the Regional MVP. "They were still in control in the second set but we scored the little points at the end. I was getting good sets and seeing seams in their block. I tried to be smart and swing my butt off. We were in system a lot, which made it easy to score."
Stanford was also manufacturing points out of broken plays and desperation, embodied by Hentz and her remarkable ability to dig balls she had no right to even get near.
"Plummer is a terrific point scorer and I'm impressed with the confidence she has," Penn State coach Russ Rose said. "Their setter has the ability to distribute the ball well and (Audriana) Fitzmorris has done a terrific job. That's a really good team and you can tell they love playing with each other. But I think Morgan Hentz is the battery that keeps that team playing at a high level all the time."
Stanford meets BYU at 4 p.m. Thursday in the first national semifinal at the Target Center. The Cougars (31-1) gave Stanford its lone loss of the season to date.
"We've had that loss to BYU in the back of our minds all season," Plummer said. "Both teams have grown so much since then. It's going to be a dogfight."
Illinois (32-3) and defending national champion Nebraska (28-6) square off in the other semifinal match.
The title match is slated for Saturday at 6 p.m. and all matches will be televised by ESPN.
"It's sold out already and there's going to be a million Nebraska fans there," Hambly said. "I hope some of our fans can make the trip. It will be a great environment and it will be cold."
A block by Tami Alade and Gray gave the Cardinal a 23-22 lead in the second set. Stanford never trailed the rest of the way.
"It was a hard-fought match and we were not in control," Hambly said. "That's a hard place to be. I'm proud of the players, who started serving and playing some defense. We were tentative in serving and made more errors than normal. It's a credit to the players how determined they were to take control and then not give it back."
The way things had been going in the past two matches it was easy to forget that Stanford leads the nation in blocking. The Cardinal reasserted itself in that regard, recording six of its 14 team blocks in the fourth set.
"By the end Stanford's blocking was very good," Rose said. "They took control of the blocking."
The Cardinal beat the Nitanny Lions in an NCAA match for the first time since 1997 while also extending its school record in-season winning streak to 30 matches. Stanford also extended its home winning streak to 36.
Gray and Alade joined Plummer on the Stanford All-Region Team. Gray dished out 52 assists to go with three aces and five critical blocks. Alade had eight kills on a .500 attack percentage and six blocks.
McClure added 14 digs to her 12 kills and Plummer had 10 digs. Fitzmorris added 10 kills and three blocks. Freshman middle blocker Holly Campbell matched Alade with six blocks and also had six kills.