Heading into the NCAA volleyball tournament, Gophers coach Hugh McCutcheon reminded his players that they didn't need to play any differently than they had all season. To put additional weight on their shoulders, he said, would invite unnecessary angst into a Gophers roster that seemed to be hitting its stride.
He thought they got the message. But the 11th-ranked Gophers needed a refresher midway through Saturday's second-round match against Creighton, and that helped them regroup for a 3-1 victory at the Sports Pavilion. After dropping the first set, the Gophers swept the next three, digging out of a deep hole in the third set to win the match 20-25, 25-17, 25-23, 25-17 and earn a place in the NCAA Sweet 16 for the fourth consecutive year.
Ashley Wittman led the Gophers (26-7) with 17 kills, 12 digs and an ace, but she got plenty of help. The Gophers hit .314 as a team and got 14 kills from Katherine Harms, plus 11 each from Tori Dixon, Dana Knudsen and freshman Daly Santana. Dixon, a junior, reached 1,003 kills for her career.
The Gophers will play Purdue, a 3-2 winner over Florida State, in Friday's regional semifinal at West Lafayette, Ind. The regional final is Saturday, with the winner advancing to the Final Four.
In the third set, Creighton (29-4) racked up seven points in a row to take a 16-8 lead, highlighted by a pair of Katie Neisler aces and two kills by Melanie Jereb. The Gophers responded with a 10-2 run to tie at 18-18 behind strong hitting by Wittman, Harms and Knudsen. A big kill by Santana gave the home team its first lead of the set at 21-20, and the Gophers clung to it to the end.
"As we got to a certain point in the match, we talked about competing with composure," McCutcheon said. "We reminded ourselves that our good is good enough.
"I think we were trying to force some things. There's a tendency in this event to start getting wrapped up in the consequences and dealing with expectations as opposed to just dealing with the next point. We settled down, and to our athletes' credit, they started making good plays. And good things happened."
Creighton coach Kirsten Bernthal Booth said the No. 21 Bluejays hoped to keep Harms and Dixon in check. Her team won the Missouri Valley Conference title and was riding a 17-match win streak, but she noted it has not faced hitters with the power that the Gophers bring.
Wittman, she said, made the difference. Creighton broke an 18-18 tie in the taut first set with a four-point run and sealed it with a Kelli Browning kill and a block by Browning and Megan Bober.
The Gophers never trailed in the second set. Wittman paced them with four kills, an ace and a block, helping the Gophers withstand a Creighton rally and scoring the final three points. Two of her kills in the third set came as her team clawed back from the eight-point deficit, a lesson, she said, that will be useful as the Gophers continue in the tournament.
"This match was really good in showing us how to fight," Wittman said. "We learned how to battle coming from behind."