With all that was swirling around her, Katherine Harms knew she needed to stay calm. The Gophers were locked in a lengthy third set against Liberty in Friday's NCAA volleyball tournament opener, in the midst of a crowd of 2,181 standing and screaming in the Sports Pavilion, trying to earn a sweep against an opponent that refused to go quietly.
Harms shut all that out and ended the match with her third ace of the evening, sealing a 25-21, 25-10, 34-32 victory. After steamrolling Liberty in the second set, the 11th-ranked Gophers were bedeviled by errors -- and by the resilient Lady Flames -- in the third. Liberty (25-8) fought off five match points before Harms, a senior opposite hitter, found the corner with her final serve.
Harms led the Gophers with 12 kills but committed six errors in the tense third set, which featured 17 ties and eight lead changes.
The Gophers (25-7) will play Creighton in the second round Saturday. Creighton swept Marquette in Friday's first match, 25-22, 25-23, 28-26. The 21st-ranked Bluejays (29-3) won after fighting off three set points in the third set. Leah McNary ended the match with the last of her 14 kills.
"It was back and forth, but we all kept our heads and remained calm,'' said Harms, the Gophers' leader in kills and points this season. "Having everyone do their job made it easy for everyone to stay focused and get those points at the end. Everyone on the team gave as much energy as they could the whole time.''
Liberty kept its wits, too, rallying from a 6-1 deficit early in the third set. The Lady Flames, who entered the tournament on a 10-match win streak, took advantage of Harms' misfires to score four consecutive points and pull into a 13-13 tie. They took their first lead of the set on Ashley Wittman's attack error and went ahead 20-17 on consecutive kills by Lillie Happel and Jade Craycraft.
Harms' attack error gave Liberty the first of its four set points. A ballhandling error and a serve into the net spoiled two of those, and the others were lost to a pair of kills by the Gophers' Tori Dixon.
Despite the shifting emotions of the set, the Lady Flames -- making their fourth NCAA tournament appearance in the past six years -- came away exhilarated.
"It was tense, but at the same time, we were having a blast,'' redshirt freshman Caroline Douglas said. "That was the most fun volleyball game I've ever been in."
The fun will go on for the Gophers, who have won five in a row after a late-season stumble in which they lost consecutive matches for the only time this season. After a 3-1 loss at Michigan State and a 3-0 defeat at Michigan, they held a team meeting.
Coach Hugh McCutcheon said they discussed how to be good teammates, the kind who help each other succeed. With that in mind, the Gophers beat ninth-ranked Nebraska and swept their final three regular-season opponents.
Harms had six kills in the first set Friday, as the Gophers found their rhythm and overcame an early deficit. They dominated the second set.
Then came the test of wills in the third. On the Gophers' sixth match point, Harms said she just wanted to stick to her routine and strike the ball well, but she did much more. "I got that corner, which is always nice," she said. "That was kind of a fun way to end the match."