DES MOINES – As a first-set deficit continued to grow, Daly Santana didn’t bother to look up at the scoreboard. The Gophers senior decided to focus not on the numbers but on the fight.
Against Big Ten rival Illinois, the Gophers struggled early in Friday’s NCAA regional semifinal, falling behind by six points. “At that point, we decided the score doesn’t really matter as long as we compete,’’ Santana said. “We stayed composed. And we got it.’’
The Gophers got the set, the sweep and a berth in the Elite Eight, roaring back to handle the Illini 25-22, 25-23, 25-17 at Wells Fargo Arena. With Santana’s teammates matching her ferocity, the Gophers (29-4) reeled off seven consecutive points — after trailing 19-13 — to close out the first set. They deflated the Illini further in the second, rallying from a 22-21 deficit, then led the entire way in the third to earn a place in Saturday’s regional final against Hawaii.
The Rainbow Wahine swept Penn State 25-22, 27-25, 25-16 in Friday’s second match. The Gophers, who have swept their first three NCAA tournament matches for the first time in program history, got 17 kills and 15 digs from Santana, and Sarah Wilhite contributed 20 kills, five digs and three blocks in a superb performance.
“Going into the match, we knew they were going to push us,’’ Wilhite said. “When they built that [first-set] lead, we never lost belief. Every single point, we just took it and were present in that point, and we didn’t think ahead. That was huge for winning that set.
“Daly definitely brought the team in and let everyone know we were here to battle. We were going to compete every point.’’
A crowd announced at 4,653 included a large, loud posse of Gophers fans, who tried to bring the home-court advantage of the Sports Pavilion across the border. They experienced some tense moments in the first set, thanks to Illinois’ solid defense and the Gophers’ erratic play.
Gophers coach Hugh McCutcheon said the Illini used a savvy game plan to push his team away from its strengths. That forced Santana and her teammates to adjust their strategy against an opponent they defeated in five sets during the regular season.
After going back and forth with the Gophers early, Illinois broke away with an 11-4 spurt. While the Gophers’ attacks often strayed wide or long, McCutcheon said the Illini’s outside hitters “were kind of having their way with us.’’ But when Illinois’ Naya Crittenden smashed a kill off the Gophers’ block to push her team to a 22-18 lead, Santana and her teammates dug in.
Santana delivered a kill to make it 22-19. Behind her flawless serve and five kills by Wilhite, the Gophers won the next six points to take the set — and Illinois coach Kevin Hambly could see the doubt creep into his players’ minds.
“I felt we were in really good control at times in the first two sets,’’ said Hambly, whose team ended the season 21-13. “We played good defense and gave them some trouble. We just couldn’t finish those sets, and that’s what happened through the year. We’ve been up on teams and weren’t able to finish.’’
Minnesota plays Hawaii at 5:30 p.m. for a trip to the Final Four. The match will be on ESPNU.
The Gophers won a number of points via tenacity, diving and dashing around the court to keep play going. They registered 46 digs to Illinois’ 33, and Samantha Seliger-Swenson earned 48 assists. The Gophers hit .339 to Illinois’ .269, with Wilhite, Santana and Hannah Tapp (15 kills) sharing the load.
McCutcheon praised his team for playing better defense as the match progressed and countering the Illini’s adjustments with its own. By focusing on the fight, the numbers followed, returning the Gophers to the Elite Eight for the sixth time in program history.
“I’m very proud of the athletes,’’ he said. “I thought they kept their composure and stayed in the battle the whole time.’’