As her team took the court against the Gophers on Friday, Kirstyn Sperry knew she was going to see something she hadn't faced before. The setter from Bryant University understood how difficult it would be to hit over a Gophers team much taller than her own, particularly in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
"We haven't necessarily seen a big block in our conference," Sperry said. "There are a few girls, but not the entire front row being over 6 feet."
The Gophers used that advantage to throw a block party at Maturi Pavilion, riding a superb defensive effort to a 25-10, 25-16, 25-21 sweep of the Northeast Conference champions. The second seed in the tournament, the Gophers logged 16 blocks—including nine in the second set — to earn a second-round showdown Saturday against South Carolina. The Gamecocks defeated Colorado 3-2 in a back-and-forth match in Friday's opener.
The 16 blocks were the second-highest output by the Gophers (26-3) this season. Taylor Morgan had nine, tying her season high, and Stephanie Samedy had a season-best six. The 6-2 Samedy and the 6-0 Morgan teamed up for several blocks, including three that set the tone in the first set.
Known primarily for their multifaceted offense, the Gophers have been focusing on improving their defense. Morgan said stuffing an opponent with a big block "is the best feeling in the world," especially when it happens over and over.
"We've been working on our blocking defense for a long time," said Morgan, who also had eight kills. "I thought this was a really good way to showcase our efforts and our progress that we've done over the year. We're doing a really good job."
Bryant (22-13), making its first appearance in the NCAA Division I tournament, had to overcome some early anxiety in the midst of a crowd announced at 5,101. While the Bulldogs calmed down to play progressively better, hitting into that forest of long limbs was simply too tall a task.
"I couldn't be prouder of this team," coach Theresa Garlacy said. "We battled on every point."
With their three best hitters measuring up at 5-9, 5-10 and 5-11, the Bulldogs struggled on the attack. They hit .008 for the match, with 33 kills and 32 attack errors. The Gophers used those mistakes to build a big lead in the first set; an early 9-0 run included a pair of blocks by Morgan and Samedy, as well as five other Bryant errors.
In the second set, the Bulldogs were trailing 15-11 when the Gophers scored seven points in a row, with two of those on blocks and three others on kill attempts that landed long or wide. Bryant adjusted in the third, trying to gain points by hitting the ball off the blockers' hands and out of bounds.
The Bulldogs led only twice in the match, scoring the first point of the third set and later claiming a 17-16 lead. Four kills by Alexis Hart, who finished with a match-high 12, and one more Morgan-Samedy block helped repel that final Bryant charge.
Gophers coach Hugh McCutcheon found many things to like Friday, with overall defense at the top of the list. "It's certainly something we've been trying to work on," he said. "It's nice to see us get some return on that investment tonight."
The victory pushed the Gophers to 15-0 this season at Maturi Pavilion. If they win on their home court Saturday, they will host next Friday's NCAA regional.
They know a strong defense will be critical to a deep tournament run. Morgan relishes the prospect, even if she had trouble describing how it feels when the Gophers get a stellar block.
"It's like, 'Mmmmm!'" she said. "I don't know how you spell that, but that's what it is."