For their last match at the Maturi Pavilion for the 2017 season, the Gophers didn’t disappoint the hometown crowd.
In fact, coach Hugh McCutcheon went as far as calling the Gophers’ NCAA tournament victory against Northern Iowa that sent them to the Sweet 16 a “special night of volleyball,” with the caliber of the two teams provoking one of the Gophers’ “best performances of the year.”
The No. 7 Gophers overtook the Panthers in four sets — 25-18, 20-25, 25-19, 25-17 — Saturday in front of 4,657 fans in the second round of the tournament. The Gophers (28-5) are one step closer to making a third consecutive trip to the Final Four. Northern Iowa finished its season 27-9.
“It was some really high-level volleyball, and I thought Minnesota did a really good job of picking up their defense. And I’m hoping that we sparked that from them,” Northern Iowa coach Bobbi Petersen said. “It just became, who was going to make the error? And I thought they just did a really good job of picking up that part of their game. And that made it a lot of fun. There’s a lot of great rallies that we’ll, at some point, go back and look at and be excited about.”
The Gophers advance to the regional Friday in Gainesville, Fla., to face No. 10 seed USC (24-9), which beat San Diego in five sets Saturday. No. 2 Florida (27-1) will face No. 15 seed UCLA (21-10), which defeated Cal Poly in four sets Saturday. The winners of those games play next Saturday in the Elite Eight.
While the Gophers dominated the first set, hitting .297 to Northern Iowa’s .089, the Panthers came back in the second set and scrambled the Gophers out of system. The Gophers eventually pulled away in a tight third set before jumping out to an early lead in the fourth and final set that they never relinquished, despite a late run from Northern Iowa. In that final set, the Gophers hit .457. The Gophers also dominated at the net, outblocking Northern Iowa 11-1.
Gophers outside hitter Alexis Hart led the game with 20 kills, recording eight in the first set alone. Redshirt freshman outside hitter Regan Pittman also contributed 14 kills while senior middle blocker Molly Lohman tallied 11. Northern Iowa had three players with double-digit kills: junior outside hitter Bri Weber (16), sophomore outside hitter Karlie Taylor (15) and junior middle hitter Piper Thomas (11).
McCutcheon said that while Hart had a favorable blocking matchup, she ended up with a team-high 55 attempts because the Gophers ended up digging off the net a lot and sending the ball high left, where Hart often was. The sophomore’s control, especially in the last two sets, impressed Pittman.
“To see those opportunities [for Hart], it’s an amazing experience,” Pittman said. “Because you want to see your teammates do well, and I believe everyone is helping her through her successes.”
McCutcheon said he’ll allow his athletes to “bask in the glory” of a Sweet 16 berth for 24 hours or so and that he and his coaching staff planned to break down the video of this match the same night before moving on to scouting the other regional teams.
But maybe even he, too, can savor such a high-quality game for just a bit.
“Very proud of our performance tonight,” McCutcheon said. “UNI is a heck of a team, and certainly they played like it tonight.
“It was a great battle.”