The top-ranked and top-seeded Stanford women's volleyball team came up short once again, dropping a disappointing 25-16, 23-25, 25-22, 25-21 decision to No. 5 Penn State in the national semifinals of the NCAA tournament Thursday night in Oklahoma City.
Brittany Howard collected 13 kills and had a hitting percentage of .324 for the Cardinal (33-2), which reached the Final Four for the first time in six years.
The Nittany Lions (35-3) will play unseeded BYU for the national title on Saturday. The Cougars knocked off No. 2 Texas in four sets to advance.
"Well, as is the norm, when we play Stanford, it's always a great match with players having to step up and make plays and grind, and every year we find ourselves in that situation with them," Penn State coach Russ Rose said.
Jordan Burgess had 10 kills and 13 digs, while Madi Bugg recorded 47 assists and 11 digs. Merete Lutz had 10 kills and hit .333. Inky Ajanaku was held to nine kills and an .091 hitting percentage.
Senior Megan Boukather had eight kills and 12 digs and fellow senior Kyle Gilbert recorded 18 digs and finished with over 2,000 for her career, only the second Stanford player to do so.
Boukather and Gilbert are the only two players that will not return for the Pac-12 champion Cardinal.
Stanford grabbed the lead in the fourth set and built an 11-7 lead against the defending national champions, who rallied to take a 14-13 lead before a Burgess kill knotted the game.
The Cardinal never did regain the lead.
"Stanford, there's a big tradition of Penn State-Stanford, and it goes way back further than any of us have played," Nittany Lions outside hitter Megan Courtney said. "Coach has really instilled us the tradition. It's a grind. Stanford is a great team. They're the No. 1 team in the country. Well deserved."
Courtney had a career-high 23 kills, hit .321 and recorded 16 digs.
The Nittany Lions took the early lead out of the break, 5-1, but Stanford recovered to take a 12-9 edge and it was back-and-forth until Penn State took control at the end of the third set.
Howard gave Stanford an 18-16 edge but the Nittany Lions recorded four consecutive kills to take the lead for good and put the Cardinal on the brink of another frustrating end to an otherwise brilliant season.
Stanford got into trouble from the opening serve and fell behind 5-0 in the first set. The Cardinal scored the next five points to tie it, but Penn State gained the momentum and never trailed in the set.
The Nittany Lions finished with a 17-9 run, including three of the last four points. Stanford committed four attack errors and a pair of service errors in the set.
Penn State also took the early lead in set two. The Cardinal did not take its first lead of the match until scoring a pair of points with Kelsey Humphreys serving to go 8-7.
The set was tied at 10 when Stanford scored six of the next seven points, getting a pair of kills from Lutz and a Bugg service ace during the run.
The Nittany Lions came back to tie it at 22, but the Cardinal held on behind a pair of kills from Burgess and another from Lutz.