PITTSBURGH – Through all the ups and downs of their season, the Gophers never lost their faith in one another. They weren’t about to start Thursday, despite the performance that Stanford star Kathryn Plummer was staging.
Plummer was blasting winner after winner in Stanford’s sweep of the Gophers in the NCAA semifinals at PPG Paints Arena. The 6-6 senior with the cannon arm was smashing balls down the line, into the corners and off various Gophers body parts, racking up a match-high 26 kills in a 25-19, 25-22, 25-22 victory. Yet the Gophers kept battling, as they had all season.
“I never felt like we lost confidence,’’ senior hitter Alexis Hart said. “I just felt like we fought. And that’s all we can give.’’
The fight that carried the Gophers to the Final Four was not enough to get them to the championship match. Stanford, the defending champion and No. 3 seed, will play Wisconsin for the NCAA title Saturday, looking to add to a trophy case that already has more NCAA championships than any other program. The Cardinal will try for its ninth title, while the Badgers — who defeated top seed Baylor 3-1 in the semifinals — are pursuing their first.
The Gophers (27-6) will return home with some bruises inflicted by Plummer, as well as the pain that comes with the end of a season defined by their heart and unity. Stephanie Samedy led the team with 13 kills, and Hart added 12 in her final college match.
But the Gophers hit only .164 against Stanford’s stubborn defense. The Cardinal (29-4), in their fourth consecutive Final Four, hit .325 and had 53 kills to the Gophers’ 38. They also outblocked the Gophers 10½-7 and outdug them 57-53.
“It didn’t feel like a 3-0 match, to be honest,’’ Stanford coach Kevin Hambly said. “We had to put up 65 points in three sets — that’s a lot — to beat them. And it felt like we had to earn every single one of those.’’
That task often fell to the sublime Plummer. The national player of the year in each of the past two seasons, she missed 10 matches because of a midseason injury. In the tournament, she has been unstoppable, with 79 kills in her past three contests.
“I don’t think I’ve necessarily found another gear,’’ she said. “Everyone just brings their best at this time because it’s do or die. We have a game plan, and we [create] really good opportunities for me to score, which makes my job a lot easier.’’
The Gophers were 0-9 against Stanford before this season. They defeated the Cardinal 3-1 on Sept. 14, when Stanford was ranked No. 1.
Plummer had 20 kills in that match. Thursday, Gophers coach Hugh McCutcheon noted the Cardinal relied more heavily on her; though she typically gets about 8½ swings per set, she averaged 17 per set in this match — and made them count.
In the first set, Plummer had eight kills on 11 attempts and added five blocks. The Gophers led briefly at 8-7, but Stanford launched a 12-4 run, with Plummer scoring seven of her team’s points.
The Gophers led the second set 10-5 before mistakes, and Plummer, did them in. She had nine kills, with several coming during a Cardinal rally that put them ahead 17-13. The Gophers tied it at 17 before Stanford gained the upper hand.
Stanford led the entire way in the third set, though the Gophers made a last stand by cutting the lead to two points before Plummer ended it with another blast.
“It’s disappointing for this season to come to an end,’’ McCutcheon said. “At the end of the day, [Stanford] was the better team tonight, and we’ve got to own that.
“For me personally, I have so much pride in our team. It was one of the greatest seasons I’ve gotten to be part of.’’