That was when Mike Hebert — a legendary coach at the U and one of the best humans you will ever meet — guided the program to its first Final Four in 2003. The next year, his Gophers were even better. They carried a 28-4 record into the NCAA tournament to earn a No. 1 seed and then breezed into the regional (round of 16), which they were hosting at the Sports Pavilion.
I had the privilege of covering that team that season for the Star Tribune, and I can tell you this: the regional semifinal match the Gophers played against Georgia Tech remains one of the best and most memorable events I have ever seen in person. It happened Dec. 10, 2004 — exactly 12 years ago Saturday, when the Gophers could be competing for another back-to-back trip to the Final Four if the Tapp twins and their teammates can win Friday night against Missouri at the same frenzied Pavilion.
In that regional semifinal 12 years ago, the Gophers dropped the first set 30-25 (this was back when rally scoring sets were a race to 30, whereas now it’s a race to 25). But the Gophers found their groove to take the next two sets and led 28-23 in the fourth. It looked like they would coast into the region final against Ohio State.
But that’s when the real fun began. Georgia Tech stormed back to win the next six points to take a 29-28 lead. The Gophers finally stopped the bleeding and tied the score at 29. That put us into “win by two” territory.
Never before has a writer on deadline both loved and hated that rule so much simultaneously. It was wonderful because of the drama it produced, and terrible because of its impact on the story as the clock ticked.
The teams swapped points at an alarming, amazing rate. The match was tied at 29, then 30, then 31 … all the way to 46-46. Yes, you read that right. The Gophers squandered 10 match points along the way. Georgia Tech finally put together two points in a row to take the set 48-46 and even the match 2-2.
At that point, I figured the Gophers were cooked. How do you lose a set like that — one Hebert admitted he thought was “wrapped up” at 28-23 — and come back?
But as much resolve as Georgia Tech showed in coming back to win that set, the Gophers showed just as much in the shorter (race to 15) fifth and final set. They ended up prevailing 15-9, then beat Ohio State the next night to earn a trip to the Final Four in Long Beach, Calif. (not a bad destination in December for the team or a writer).
The Gophers ended up reaching the national title game for the first (and only, still) time in their history before losing to Stanford. Paula Gentil (pictured), the defensive whiz as the team’s star libero (and a great human being) could barely move by the end of that run.
But sometimes that’s what it takes. I learned something about perseverance from that team and also learned that doing a bunch of tequila shots the night before a 7 a.m. flight out of LAX is a bad idea.
I’ll never forget either lesson.