The Gophers had Michigan State looking completely discombobulated at the end of the second set of their volleyball match on Friday night at a packed Sports Pavilion. The margin was 25-18 and gave the Gophers a 2-0 lead as the teams headed to the locker rooms for the break.

Something happened. Midway through the third set, the momentum swung to Michigan State — a towering team with powerful hitters — and the Spartans won the next two sets.

And now it was late in the decisive fifth, and Sparty had fought back again to reach match point at 14-13. You could hear the air being sucked back into the collective throat of the crowd as Holly Tolliver went back to serve.

Tolliver is State’s 6-foot-2 lefthander. She throws the ball to the rafters on her serve and then smashes it. She had four aces Friday, and it seemed like more.

There were a few yelps of encouragement sent from the fans, but there was more silent apprehension. Call it “Foreboding for 5,000.’’

The serve was drilled, the Gophers managed to keep the ball alive, and freshman Alexis Hart hit a monstrous kill to make it 14-14. She had the kill again to keep the Gophers alive at 16-16 in an extended set.

Sarah Wilhite’s kill put the Gophers in front, and then a missed return by Michigan State allowed the home team to escape with a victory.

Wilhite is a senior star with a tremendous all-around game, but this night was Hart’s: 20 kills and only two errors in 43 attacks while looking into a huge front line.

The 5,000-plus roared with approval at the decisive point and headed into the night knowing this: On a crowded weekend that has included football, basketball and hockey, they had witnessed the most intense, dramatic athletic event that would be held on campus.

I’ve been accused of agitating on occasion, but there is none intended in repeating this opinion: For entertainment and excellence, the best Gophers sport to watch live is volleyball.

Friday night was Exhibit A. There’s more Sunday: 1 p.m. vs. Michigan. It will be more fun than the Vikings.

PLUS THREE

Unsung heroes on a frantic Friday for No. 2-rated Gophers:

• Dalianliz Rosado. The junior defensive specialist will do anything to keep a ball alive, including a couple off her collarbone.

• Katie Schau. Listed at 5-8, she’s a senior who seldom catches your eye, and then she makes a marvelous dig to create the winning point.

• Maddie Beal. Out of nowhere, the seldom-used junior was subbed in during the fifth set and gave a defensive presence at the net.

Read Patrick Reusse’s blog at startribune.com/patrick. E-mail him at preusse@startribune.com.

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