For all the talent the Gophers possessed last season, coach Hugh McCutcheon knew they had one deficiency that only time could cure. They had to learn how to play in pivotal moments, particularly when they were challenged in the late stages of a set.
McCutcheon had seen that quality blossoming throughout the season — and Saturday, his team demonstrated it again. The second-seeded Gophers swept Marquette 3-0 to advance to the NCAA Sweet Sixteen, staving off Golden Eagles rallies in the first and third sets. Behind 12 kills by Daly Santana and a fast-paced, balanced offense running in high gear, the Gophers prevailed 25-23, 25-13, 25-21 at the Sports Pavilion to earn a trip to the regional semifinals in Des Moines.
The Gophers (28-4) will play a familiar foe in Friday’s third-round match at Wells Fargo Arena: Illinois, which upset Louisville, the No. 15 overall seed, 3-1 on Saturday. Two-time defending champion Penn State and Hawaii also advanced in the Des Moines regional. The winners of Friday’s matches will play in Saturday’s quarterfinals, with the winner moving on to the Final Four.
“We were expecting the match to get tough,” said Santana, who also had 11 digs. “It did. And the way we responded was really good. We know we can respond every time it gets tough.”
Marquette (22-12) got 18 kills from star Taylor Louis, but the Golden Eagles could not close the deal in the first and third sets — and they collapsed under a rash of mistakes in the second. They hit .085 for the match, committing 25 attack errors, and they also made six service errors.
The victory finished off a perfect record for the Gophers this season at the Sports Pavilion, where they went 15-0 and played Saturday before a crowd announced at 5,294. They got some assistance from their lively supporters in that first set. After they took a 21-15 lead, Marquette reeled off five consecutive points as Louis smashed four kills and joined Jenna Rosenthal on a block.
With their fans bellowing, the Gophers clung to the lead, forcing set point as Sarah Wilhite finished off a long point with a kill. The Golden Eagles pulled within 24-23 on a block, but Teal Schnurr’s service error gave the set to the Gophers.
“That was just another example of the resilience this group has developed over the course of the season,” McCutcheon said. “It speaks to their ability to manage moments, and to be able to play their best when their best is needed.”
Louis said the Gophers’ fast offense knocked Marquette out of its rhythm, and teammate Sara Blasier added that the Gophers’ ability to spread the ball around to several hitters made it difficult.
That showed in the second set, when the Gophers opened with eight points in a row and maintained control throughout the set. In the third, though, Marquette dug in. The Golden Eagles held a 14-13 lead before the Gophers stormed back with five consecutive points, and another late run put Marquette up 21-19.
“We stayed composed,” Wilhite said. “We didn’t get flustered. We didn’t act jittery. We really believed we could come back.
“We knew coming in they were fighting for their lives. We were aware that was going to happen, and we pushed back.”
They did, with six consecutive points that gave them their second sweep of the tournament. Hannah and Paige Tapp combined for 16 kills and 12 blocks, Wilhite added six kills and setter Samantha Seliger-Swenson racked up 33 assists.
“It’s been a great team run so far,” Seliger-Swenson said. “There’s a lot on the line now. Our strength is in our unity.”