Gophers volleyball coach Hugh McCutcheon considered his team and Wisconsin’s in “different places” in their maturations before Thursday’s tense four-set loss to the Badgers at Maturi Pavilion.
Different places, that is, maybe in every way except for their shared hold on first place in the Big Ten with identical 13-1 conference records.
By late Thursday, the Badgers were alone atop it after they persevered with a 25-22, 23-25, 30-28, 29-27 victory in which they shrugged off five set points in the final two sets.
Both teams worked overtime in those final two sets, but only Wisconsin prevailed a month after it swept the Gophers in Madison.
This time, the seventh-ranked Badgers delivered the fifth-ranked Gophers their second loss in conference play and their fourth this season.
“It’s going to come down to a play here and a play there,” McCutcheon said. “That was certainly the case tonight. It’s one thing to have those discussions in a preseason gym where all the hopes and dreams are intact and there’s no one on the other side of the net and no one in the stands. There’s definitely lessons you can learn just playing this thing point to point.
“We did everything we could to win. We just didn’t make a few plays when it counted, and that’s that.”
His team had its chances in each of the last two sets. They led 25-24 and 26-24 in the third and couldn’t get just one more point beyond before the Badgers finished the set off 30-28.
After such effort went unrewarded, the Gophers trailed 10-5 and 23-17 in the fourth set, then reeled off eight of the next nine points and led 25-24, 26-25 and 27-26 before the Badgers scored the night’s final three points. The final two came on kills from redshirt junior outside hitter Molly Haggerty for a Wisconsin team that outdid the Gophers 82-64 in kills.
Gophers outside hitter Adanna Rollins and middle blocker Regan Pittman, in particular, did about all they could. Rollins produced a team-high 16 kills. Pittman delivered with blocks, spikes, digs, even a service ace, but the Gophers came up one point shy too many times in a match that charged late into the night.
Asked afterward if the evening was heartbreaking, thrilling or some of both, Rollins said: “I don’t think it’s heartbreaking. We’re still learning, trying to get better. We’re trying to push through it and find ways to connect and grow as a team.”
Days before Thursday’s match, McCutcheon dismissed the notion there’s such a thing in the Big Ten as a rivalry match, because so many matches mean so much in a conference that has seven teams ranked in the nation’s top 25, four of them consecutively in the top 10.
“Every night it’s on,” he said.
On Thursday, it was really on.
“You have to have the ability to learn fast and maybe forget quickly,” he said. “You’ve got to get on with the next one here [Saturday vs. Michigan]. We won’t dwell on this.”
On Tuesday, McCutcheon called his Gophers and Wisconsin “a couple teams that are at two very different phases of their maturation.” He believes the Badgers found themselves in nonconference play while his team, because of injuries, has held itself together with baling wire and chewing gum despite its 19-4 record.
He ran out of substitutes in both of the final long two sets when defensive specialist Rachel Kilkelly and setter Bayley McMenimen both played up front some. Wisconsin coach Kelly Sheffield improvised, as well.
“It certainly wasn’t for lack of trying,” McCutcheon said. “As much as we want to think Bayley and Rachel are the consummate blocking pair, they may be a little deficient in that area. Now we’re exposing our systemic weaknesses that they could exploit, and they did.”