Over the course of the regular season, Gophers coach Hugh McCutcheon noticed a strong bond forming among his players. There were "some real connections there," he said — and in the NCAA tournament, that kind of closeness can pay big dividends.
He saw that quality again Friday, as the Gophers routed Fairfield 3-0 in their tournament opener at Maturi Pavilion. The seventh-ranked Gophers clicked in all phases of the game, rolling into the second round with a 25-13, 25-14, 25-11 victory in front of a crowd announced at 3,956. They will return to the Pav on Saturday to face 15th-ranked Creighton, a 3-0 winner over Iowa State in Friday's first match.
Adanna Rollins led the Gophers with 14 kills, while Alexis Hart added nine and Taylor Morgan contributed eight. All three hit over .500 as the Gophers (24-5) hit .434 for the match. Morgan also shined in her team's superb defensive performance, as the Gophers outblocked the smaller Stags 10-0.
"We just mesh really well together,'' said Morgan, who had five blocks and hit a match-high .571. "We just want to win for each other. We want to do our very best for each other, and I don't believe it was any different [Friday]. We just connected again.''
The victory was the fourth in a row for the Gophers and ran their record to 23-1 in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Though they started slowly in the first two sets, they put together several scoring strings en route to the sweep.
Fairfield coach Todd Kress said he knew the Gophers' height and muscle would be tough for his team to handle. Mayda Garcia, who led the team with seven kills, is only 5-9, and the tallest Stags players are 6 feet.
Kress joked that the only way to prepare for that was for him to practice against his players, or to have them stand on boxes. Instead, Fairfield tried to counter the height deficit with a game plan reliant on strong serving and serve reception. The Stags delivered on the serving part, but they were unable to get the rest of their game going.
They led the first set 5-2 before the Gophers outscored them 11-2, closing out the set on a 7-1 run. In the second set, Fairfield held a 10-7 advantage, then was outscored 18-4 the rest of the way.
"We had some chances in the second set and just kind of panicked,'' Kress said. "We made a few errors in a row. We let them go on too many runs.''
The Stags hit -.038 for the match, with 22 kills and 26 attack errors. The Gophers had 40 kills and only four attack errors.
Rollins, who has been polishing her footwork in practice, had an outstanding match. Seven of her kills came in the third set, and she committed no errors. She also was part of the team's imposing defense, with four blocks.
''Their tactic was to serve tough, and they did,'' McCutcheon said of Fairfield. "The fact that we were able to control the net, and get some good transition and some good point-scoring at the net on the defensive end, certainly was one of the key aspects for us.''
Those connections proved important, too. McCutcheon said that closeness "matters a lot'' in the postseason, and the Gophers will continue to count on it.
"This was a really good springboard into the tournament,'' Morgan said. "We're just hoping to build off of that for [Saturday].''