TAMPA — Penn State's run at history needed a match for the ages.
The Nittany Lions, riding a 101-match winning streak, claimed an unprecedented third straight NCAA Division I women's volleyball title by rallying from two sets down to beat Texas in a thriller, 22-25, 20-25, 25-23, 25-21, 15-13, on Saturday night at the St. Pete Times Forum.
Senior All-America outside hitter Megan Hodge recovered from a slow start to show why she's her sport's answer to Kobe Bryant, hitting the match-winning shot as the top-ranked and top-seeded Nittany Lions (38-0) continued their reign.
"We had to fight," said Hodge, who had 21 kills, 13 digs and five blocks. "It's the hardest fight I think we've ever had in our lives."
The second-ranked and second-seeded Longhorns (29-2) and senior All-America outside-hitter Destinee Hooker were that good for so much of the match that had been anticipated all season.
Hooker, the tournament's most outstanding player, had a career-high 34 kills and 17 digs and looked poised to punctuate her career with a long-elusive championship. Texas won the title in 1988 then lost in the finale in 1995 but hadn't been back to the point since.
After Penn State used a 7-1 run to pull ahead 22-19 in the opening set, prompting Texas coach Jerritt Elliott to call both his timeouts, his team — and Hooker — responded by closing out the set on a 6-0 run. Hooker had three kills, including the set-winner after senior setter/hitter Ashley Engle's acrobatic dig on a shot by Hodge.
The Nittany Lions hadn't fallen by more than two points in any of the previous six sets they had lost.
Hooker continued to excel in the second set, with eight kills in an 8-2 run that gave the Longhorns a stunning 18-10 lead that Penn State couldn't overcome, even with Hodge heating up a bit.
Down 2-0 for the first time since Sept. 2, 2007, a three-set loss to Nebraska, the Nittany Lions roared back behind junior middle blocker Blair Brown and Hodge to take stay alive, 25-23.
"We started to play a lot harder," said Penn State coach Russ Rose, who joins John Dunning (Pacific, Stanford) and Don Shaw (Stanford) as the only coaches to win four championships. He won in 1999 as well.
Texas, which lost in the national semifinals last year to Stanford after taking the first two sets, fell behind early in the fourth set, came back and battled back and forth before Hodge and a fellow senior, setter Alisha Glass (53 assists), took control. Hodge had three big kills, including the finale for a 25-21 win that forced the fifth set.
"Megan and Alisha didn't start very strong, but they ended strong," Rose said. "They just won three national championships in a row. Not a lot of people have done stuff like that. They just willed us to the win."
Brian Landman can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3347.