Purdue, Big Ten volleyball a big deal

Courtesy of Dennis Hubbard

Purdue's players celebrate after the final point Saturday against No. 4 seed Missouri.

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Missouri had the perfect record, but Purdue had the perfect game plan. Play physical defense, force the Tigers into mistakes.

The only undefeated volleyball team in Division I saw its season end with its only loss of the year, while the Big Ten continued making its statement as the best conference in this sport this season.

Courtesy of Dennis Hubbard

Junior Val Nichol had her second triple-double of the season with 14 kills, 10 digs and 27 assists to lead Purdue.

The Boilermakers beat No. 4 seed Missouri 3-1 in the second round of the NCAA tournament Saturday, which -- seedings-wise -- is an upset. An 11-loss team beating a team that hadn't lost? Shocker? Nope.

Realistically, this is a Boilermakers squad with five seniors and a lot of beneficial battle scars, both from rigorous Big Ten play this season and past NCAA tournament play. It was an "upset" that volleyball-watchers could see coming.

The Tigers' perfection this season was respected by the Boilermakers, but it didn't intimidate them. Going against the likes of Penn State, Nebraska, Minnesota, etc., will get you ready for anything.

"We knew they were one of the most efficient teams in the country," Purdue coach Dave Shondell said of Missouri. "But we knew we were going to bring a different style of volleyball they haven't seen … hard, aggressive, tough. Whether that's true or not, it gave us something to drive on. It motivated us."

In other words, Shondell wanted to convince his kids they had the upper hand because of their physicality, regardless of the fact Missouri was playing at home and hadn't lost this season. It worked. The Boilermakers, who finished sixth in the Big Ten to Missouri's first in the SEC, looked as if they never doubted themselves.

In truth, Missouri actually did play some very good teams this season, but not as many as Purdue did. Eight teams from the Big Ten made the NCAA tournament field, and six of them have advanced to the Sweet 16. Michigan State could be the seventh; the Spartans face Kentucky in a second-round match Sunday.

The SEC also got eight teams into the NCAA bracket, but the Wildcats are the only ones left standing. Missouri and Florida, the highest-seeded teams from the SEC at Nos. 4 and 5, both are out of the tournament.

"It's tough when you get into comparing the conferences," Missouri coach Wayne Kreklow said. "I think [Purdue] would be really good in the SEC. Are they better than Florida? Are they better than Kentucky? Are they better than us? Tonight they were better. The Big Ten is a great conference. Is it that much better? No, I don't think so."

Um … what? Is this denial or disappointment talking? Or both? Actually, it's not Kreklow's job to boost the Big Ten; it's his job to pump up Missouri and the SEC, which the Tigers joined in 2012.

Bill Streicher/Icon SMI

No. 2 Penn State and Megan Courtney (17) have swept both of their NCAA tournament matches.

But there is no arguing with the numbers, which make an overwhelming case for the Big Ten's superiority. With a Spartans win, the Big Ten will make up almost half of the Sweet 16.

The Boilermakers showed their resolve in defeating the Tigers 25-18, 23-25, 25-16 and 27-25. Purdue -- led by Val Nichol's 14 kills on the night -- shut the door in a nail-biter of a fourth set.

Saturday was a potentially humongous day in Mizzou sports: The men's basketball team was facing UCLA, the football team was in the SEC title game against Auburn, and the volleyball team was trying to earn a Sweet 16 berth. But at day's end, only the basketball Tigers won.

"Like I told the kids in the locker room, in sports some days it's your day and some days it's somebody else's," Kreklow said. "I was really proud of the way we competed. It was hard to just kind of get things going on a consistent basis [tonight]. We've had a lot of really good days throughout the course of the season."

This is Purdue's eighth trip to the Sweet 16, and fifth in the past six years. The Boilermakers will be seeking their second regional final in program history; they made it that far previously in 2010, when they lost to Texas.

Purdue will be playing a familiar foe next: fellow Big Ten team Illinois, the regional host. The Boilermakers and Illini split their meetings in the regular season, with each winning on their home court. A third Big Ten team, Wisconsin, also is in that regional.

The other Big Ten teams in the Sweet 16 are Penn State, Nebraska and Minnesota. As for Sweet 16 spots that the Big Ten has not claimed, those were spread around. The Pac-12 has three: Washington, Stanford and USC. The Huskies and the Trojans are in the same regional, at USC.

The Big 12 has two: defending national champion Texas and Kansas, which is making the program's first appearance in the regional semifinals.

The West Coast Conference, thanks to Brigham Young's defeat of Hawaii late Saturday, also has two teams left. San Diego is the other. 

Another Sweet 16 first-timer is American; the Patriot League school beat Georgia and ACC champion Duke -- on the Blue Devils' home court -- to advance. The ACC is left with one team, Florida State.

But Purdue was the story Saturday. Now, the Boilermakers may have to beat two fellow conference schools to get to their first final four in program history.

"Especially this year, every team is so good," Purdue's Carly Cramer said of her league. "It was great preparation for the tournament."

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