Junior Meghan McClure has a habit of being in the right place at the right time and doing the right thing. She did it again Friday in the Stanford regional semifinals.
With Kathryn Plummer serving and Utah trying everything it could to keep the ball away from her, it was up to McClure to deliver.
McClure delivered the final two points in Stanford's epic 22-25, 25-14, 25-10, 12-25, 15-11 victory over Utah in another of what has become an absolute phenomenal NCAA women's volleyball tournament to date.
"We have so many weapons that on any given day the ball can go to others," McClure said. "Last balls seem to find me and I was ready. When the last ball was passed so deep in the corner I knew I was the only other option."
McClure delivered match point in last year's five-set victory over Nebraska that gave the Cardinal the national championship.
"It was an incredible match," Cardinal coach Kevin Hambly said. "It was fun to be a part of that. For us to execute the way we did in the fifth set after losing that fourth set shows leadership. This group knows how to win."
The win sets up another confrontation between the two most storied programs in women's volleyball on Saturday (7 p.m.): Stanford vs. Penn State, with a berth in the Final Four in Pittsburgh at stake. There is not another school in the country that can come close to these two school's histories.
Stanford (27-4) and the Utes (24-10) were in an old-fashioned slugfest, where both teams were taking the others best punches and jumping back off the mat for more.
Utah completely disrupted the Cardinal in the fourth set and looked to carry that momentum into the fifth set. Dani Drews recorded 18 kills, one of four Utes to reach double figures in kills, and led a determined effort that came close to unseating the Cardinal from its perch on the top of the hill.
"It's disappointing and we can use that as motivation to know we really are a very good team," Drews said. "We have so many weapons and we'll keep grinding."
Utah finished third in the Pac-10 but of all the teams they played twice (or more) they beat everybody but Stanford and Hambly will be the first to say those were three of the toughest wins his team had to earn.
The Utes return a fair amount of talented players while Stanford loses a bunch of All-American seniors. Utah is fully aware of that as it looks forward to next year.
Meanwhile, Stanford moves on because it has three of the best players at their positions in the nation in Plummer, setter Jenna Gray and libero Morgan Hentz.
Stanford needed every one of Plummer's 29 kills, seven of which came in the deciding set.
"Good or bad we've come to expect that from her," Hambly said. "While we're trying to sort things out she saves us at times. We expect Kathryn to make plays."
Plummer's best quality is staying in the moment. It takes her less than a second to get over a bad play and move on.
Because she missed 10 games due to injury, she wasn't eligible for postseason honors. Not that it bothers her. Another national team title would trump any individual honor. She's playing like one of the best in the country at a time when a loss sends you home for the year.
"I don't believe she gets rattled," Utah coach Beth Launiere said. "She's got a lot of shots and a lot of range. If you take something away she goes somewhere else. She can go up and hit over the block so matter how well you block."
Senior Madeleine Gates registered a career-high 14 blocks in the win.
Senior setter Jenna Gray finished with 52 assists and matched her career-high with eight blocks. She also tallied six digs and three kills.
Senior libero Morgan Hentz collected 23 digs and had five assists, while junior defensive specialist Kate Formico added 11 digs and an ace.
Senior opposite Audriana Fitzmorris added 10 kills and four blocks for Stanford, while Gates hit .571 with eight kills on 14 errorless swings.
Penn State needed five sets to beat Cincinnati in the other regional semifinal. The main reason was Jordan Thompson, a member of the U.S. national team that won the World Volleyball League last summer. She had 30 kills in a match against Brazil, which placed second to the U.S.
"She is as advertised," Penn State coach Russ Rose said. "She's an incredible player and competitive. If the game is close, Jordan can win the game from the front row or the back row. She's that talented an attacker."
"She's the best point scorer in the country," Bobcats coach Molly Alvey said. "I don't think there's a team in the country who can stop her."
Thompson certainly made a case for being the best player in the country.
"I'd love to hear arguments against it," Alvey said. "Her evolution in becoming aback row, solid six rotation says a lot. I would vote for her. Jordan has put up these numbers two consecutive years."
"She is the reason we are here right now," Cincinnati's Armania Heckenmueller said. "Her leadership is incredible and we play better because we learned so much from her."