Saturday, February 7, 2015

Belated Summary of Last December's NCAA Women's Final Four

It's been quite a while since Penn State swept BYU, 25-21, 26-24, 25-14, last December to give the Nittany Lion program its second straight NCAA women's title, sixth in the last eight years, and seventh overall. Greater drama was to be found in the two semifinal matches, in which Penn State defeated No. 1-seeded Stanford, and BYU held off No. 2-seeded Texas, both in four games. Accordingly, my statistical review will concentrate on the two semis.

PENN STATE VS. STANFORD

The Cardinal came into this match with a 33-1 record, including a five-game win over Penn State on September 5. Stanford's only regular-season loss had come at Washington on November 26.

In the Stanford-PSU rematch in the NCAA semifinals, however, the Nittany Lions had taken Games 1 (25-16) and 3 (25-22), to place the Cardinal one game away from elimination. Stanford may have been feeling that, if it could pull out Game 4, it would be in good shape, as the Cardinal had hit exceptionally well in Game-5 situations all year.

Date
Opponent
Game-5 
Hitting %
Sept. 5
Penn State
.412
Sept. 7
Illinois
.350
Oct. 17
at Colorado
.500
Nov. 5
Arizona State
.381
Nov. 7
Arizona
.429
All matches played at Stanford, unless noted otherwise.

However, needing a big performance in Game 4 of the NCAA semifinal match vs. Penn State to keep its season alive, Stanford laid an egg, hitting .159. In the Cardinal's 128 total games this season, this .159 tied for Stanford's sixth-worst game-specific hitting percentage of the season (you may click on the following histogram to enlarge it; graphing software).

















How well Stanford would have hit in a potential Game 5 of the national semifinal against Penn State will never be known, the Nittany Lions wrapping up Game 4, 25-21. For the match, PSU outhit Stanford, .279-.207.

BYU VS. TEXAS

In the last hurrah for Longhorn seniors Khat Bell and Haley Eckerman, Texas fell behind two games to none (25-23, 25-16), blew out BYU in Game 3 (25-17), but fell to the Cougars 26-24 in Game 4. Texas is typically bigger and stronger than its opponents, but it was BYU that benefited from height.

A .421 hitting performance by 6-2 outside-hitter Alexa Gray (19 kills and 3 errors on 38 attempts) and 17 total team blocks paced BYU. Six-foot-four middle Amy Boswell recorded 1 solo block and 8 assists (5 total, as an assist is credited as half a block), whereas 6-7 opposite-side hitter Jennifer Hamson and  Whitney Young each registered 3.5 total blocks based on 7 assists each. Young, at 6-0, was the short one of the bunch!

On the December 15 installment of Internet radio's The Net Live, Penn State men's assistant Jay Hosack argued that blocking should be evaluated more broadly than via direct stuff-blocks for points, because even the best blocking teams will generate only about three points per game this way(click here for archived broadcast; this discussion begins at roughly the 40:00 minute mark). As Hosack and fellow panelist Katie Charles agreed, beyond stuff blocks, a good blocking team can engage in "control blocking" (i.e., slowing the ball down so that the diggers behind the blockers can transition the team to offense) or cause an opposing hitter to alter his or her spike so that the ball is hit out of bounds.

I like Hosack's ideas and plan to pursue them. I would also say, however, that stuff-blocks in particular were key to BYU's victory over Texas. There was a sequence in Game 2 in which the Cougars expanded their lead from 12-9 to 18-11. During this stretch, BYU earned 5 of its 6 points through stuff blocks. These stuff blocks may have shaken Texas or possibly just revealed a pre-existing flaw in the Longhorns' offensive strategy.

Texas was able to turn things around after the break, avoiding any BYU stuff-blocks all through Game 3 and well into Game 4. However, with Game 4 tied 16-16, the Cougars stuffed three straight Longhorn spike attempts for a 19-16 lead. Texas rallied back, producing an extremely tight finish, but it is likely the match would have gone to a fifth game absent BYU's blocking resurgence.

Against the Longhorns, Hamson hit a solid, if unspectacular, .241 (22-9-54). For Texas, Eckerman (.033) and Bell (.120) were neutralized, with middle-blockers Molly McCage (.357) and Chiaka Ogbogu (.500), a junior and sophomore respectively, giving the Burnt Orange some spark.

CONCLUSION

BYU was a shadow of its semifinal performance in the final, with Gray (.214) and Hamson (.071) hitting much less effectively against Penn State than against Texas. As a team, the Cougars recorded 7.0 blocks against PSU (2.33 per game), compared to the 4.25 per game against the Horns. Senior Nittany Lion setter Micha Hancock went out on a high note, setting middle-blocker and fellow senior Nia Grant to a .500 hitting percentage (9-1-16).

Penn State dominated two metrics I've tracked this season, making its NCAA title unsurprising. One is my Conference-Adjusted Combined Offensive-Defensive measure. The other is the number of times scoring fewer than 20 points in a game (excluding fifth games, which are played only to 15). That happened to the Nittany Lions exactly zero times this season! PSU lost only two games total in the NCAA tourney, 25-22 in the opening game against Wisconsin in the Elite Eight and 25-23 in Game 2 vs. Stanford.