Des Moines – With every point and every rally, the Gophers could feel the tension rising in Wells Fargo Arena. After they won the first two sets of Saturday's NCAA regional final, Hawaii swung back hard, delivering a gut punch in the third set and blasting out to a quick lead in the fourth.
The din of 4,818 manic fans swirled around them, but the Gophers kept a tight rein on their emotions as they picked away at the deficit. "We felt very in control of ourselves," middle blocker Hannah Tapp said. "And we embraced the moment of competition at the end."
Trailing 20-18 in the fourth set, the No. 4 Gophers ran off five consecutive points, then struck the final blow to win 3-1 and return to the Final Four for the first time since 2009. Their calm stood in contrast to a rousing, back-and-forth match, steadying them throughout a 25-18, 25-13, 24-26, 25-21 victory over an opponent that had not lost in its past 24 matches.
The Gophers (30-4) cruised early before the No. 7-ranked Rainbow Wahine shook off their torpor and rallied behind star Nikki Taylor. But the Gophers regained their rhythm, hitting .403 for the match and getting 26 kills from Daly Santana to earn a place in next Thursday's NCAA semifinals in Omaha.
Santana, who hit .438 and added 12 digs, was named the regional's most outstanding player. Teammates Tapp, who hit .600 with 15 kills, and Sarah Wilhite, who contributed 12 kills, also were named to the all-tournament team.
"We had to come out in the fourth set and do our job, compete as hard as we can," said Santana, who had 43 kills and 27 digs in the two regional matches. "We knew they were going to push back. But we could also push them.
"We focused on having good energy and not getting too emotional. It was all about staying composed. The match isn't over until the last point. We just kept battling."
Hawaii (29-2) lost for the first time since Sept. 6. The Rainbow Wahine swept Penn State in the regional semifinal Friday, but erratic hitting and serving hurt them early against the Gophers. They hit .210 for the match, including a dismal .059 in the second set, while the Gophers hit .453 in the first two sets and got superb blocking to go up 2-0.
At that point, it appeared the Gophers might get their fourth consecutive sweep of the tournament. But Hawaii coach Dave Shoji tinkered with his lineup to get some different matchups, Taylor began hitting with more range and consistency, and the Rainbow Wahine clawed back.
"[The Gophers] were attacking us from all angles, and we just couldn't slow them down," Shoji said. "We weren't competing. We were just kind of watching them play. I appealed to the team, and they responded. They didn't want to go out that way."
Taylor energized her team with 11 kills in the third set, scoring Hawaii's final five points as the Gophers lost a set for the first time in the tournament. A run of Gophers miscues helped the Rainbow Wahine to a 5-1 lead in the fourth. After a Taylor kill put Hawaii ahead 20-18, Santana and Wilhite combined for four kills during a 7-1 run that sealed the match.
When it ended, coach Hugh McCutcheon applauded a gleeful mob of Gophers fans, then swept up daughter Annika in his arms. and strode off the court. His players raised a racket, too, as the Gophers' celebratory whoops and hollers flooded out of their locker room and echoed down the hallways.
As much as they enjoyed the weekend, Tapp and her teammates said they want to continue making noise in the tournament.
"We've put in so much hard work,'' Tapp said. "To see us come so far to where we are now is amazing. It's almost unreal. And it doesn't stop here.