By James Hemker
In a bona-fide Pac-12 slugfest, No. 3 Stanford outlasted Utah in five sets on Friday night. The Utes did their best to harness some Friday-the-13th spookiness, but each Cardinal player on the floor did her job and held fast. For its efforts, Stanford has won an Elite Eight date with Penn State in Maples — the exact scenario the title-winning team was put in last year.
The 22-25, 25-14, 25-10, 12-25, 15-11 match ran the gamut of emotion with its wildly-swinging set scores and showcased all of the talent that this Stanford team has to offer. The offense put up a .303 hitting percentage, which no Utah opponent had done all season. Defensively, the Cardinal blocked an astounding 21 balls. Not only is that figure a season-high, it ties the program’s record under head coach Kevin Hambly.
Senior Jenna Gray commanded the offense with her 57 assists, marking the seventh time this year that the Pac-12 Setter of the Year reached the half-century mark. Gray was more than capable on the defensive side of things as well, tying her career best with eight blocks.
Unsurprisingly, the main beneficiary of Gray’s efforts was outside Kathryn Plummer, who pounded Utah with 29 kills at a .389 clip. The two-time Player of the Year came up big when the team needed her most, recording seven of Stanford’s 12 kills in the fifth set. The senior also had 10 digs for her second consecutive double-double.
While Plummer’s stat line was impressive, graduate middle Madeleine Gates was Stanford’s two-way player of the night. Gates’ 14 blocks shattered her previous career high (11) from UCLA. She had six more stuffs than her next-closest teammate and 10 over any of Utah’s blockers. When it was her turn to smash the ball, Gates took advantage of her opportunities, connecting on eight of 14 swings without a single error (.571 hitting).
Giving the Stanford offense second and third-chance opportunities was the back row. Led by three-time Pac-12 Libero of the Year Morgan Hentz and her 23 digs, three additional players hit double figures.
Junior outside Meghan McClure and her classmate, defensive specialist Kate Formico, each upped 11 balls. The juniors were also killer from the service line, earning an ace a piece.
The rollercoaster scores come down to the fact that the Cardinal and Utes know each other so well. Their ability to find the chinks in the armor allowed for massive runs and lopsided sets. For Stanford, this was best exemplified in the third frame with an absurd 18-2 run. McClure and Formico served for 12 of those 20 points.
The Utes came back in the fourth to give the Cardinal a taste of their own medicine. Four Utah blocks and poor Stanford passing hamstrung the offense — the Cardinal hit -.071.
Ultimately, the hyper-competitive match was par for the course across the nation. Of the eight Sweet 16 games that took place on Friday, half went to five sets. Most notably No. 2 Texas was upset by Louisville, and most relevant to the Cardinal No. 11 Penn State escaped the clutches of Cincinnati.
The Nittany Lions hosted Stanford in September, before school started, and the Cardinal left with a very tight 3-1 win. The first frame, which Penn State took, ended at 27-29, and the next three sets were decided by a total of eight points.
First serve from Maples is set for 7 p.m. PT.
Contact James Hemker at jahemker ‘at’ stanford.edu.