For months, the Gophers wondered if the volleyball season would ever start. They spent most of 2020 practicing and waiting and hoping, as the Big Ten discussed how to safely play in a pandemic.
Once the season finally got going, the Gophers' goal was to make it last as long as possible. That made it hurt all the more Sunday, when they were upset 3-2 by Pittsburgh in the NCAA regional semifinals. A season that started four months later than usual ended abruptly in a convention hall at Omaha's CHI Health Center, at the hands of an opponent eager to make history.
The third overall seed, the Gophers fell 25-21, 23-25, 25-20, 21-25, 11-15 in a back-and-forth match. Pitt's hard-hitting trio of Chinaza Ndee, Kayla Lund and Chiamaka Nwokolo led a stout attack in the fourth and fifth sets, as the unseeded Panthers played with poise and assurance in their first Sweet 16 appearance.
Senior Stephanie Samedy finished with a match-high 23 kills for the Gophers, who became the first Big Ten team to be bounced from the tournament. They ended the season 16-3.
"It's disappointing to lose, but I was proud of them," coach Hugh McCutcheon said. "We had a heck of a year, and it's a shame it ended this quickly.
"I thought we battled. It just wasn't to be. And Pitt played really well."
The Gophers hit .233 to Pitt's .205 and outblocked the Panthers 16-11. But they were undone by too many unforced errors, and they could not get their offense into a rhythm in the final set. After the Gophers took a 5-4 lead, Pitt outscored them 6-1 and fought off a late rally that cut the Panthers' lead to two points.
Pitt, which swept No. 14 seed Utah in the second round, has won 15 consecutive matches.
"As a team, we were all ready to fight,'' Samedy said. "I think we gave it our best. Pitt just ended up being the better team."
McCutcheon anticipated a tough match from Pitt (19-4), which went 4-4 in a brief fall season before a breakthrough spring. Ndee finished with a team-high 19 kills, and Lund, the two-time ACC player of the year, added 17 kills, 10 digs and an ace. Nwokolo contributed 13 kills and three blocks while hitting .647.
The Panthers struggled with accuracy in the first set, hitting only .077. But they steadied themselves and made a late push that carried over into the second set.
Pitt took control early and led by as many as six points. When a hitting error allowed the Gophers to tie it at 23, the Panthers righted themselves quickly and finished off the set with two kills, showing a resilience that would carry them later in the match.
The Gophers demonstrated their own fortitude in the third set, answering every Pitt rally with one of their own to take a 2-1 lead in the match. But the Panthers charged back again in the fourth, as the Gophers' offense sputtered. In the fifth set, Pitt maintained its composure when officials ordered a replay of a point the Panthers had won, and when the Gophers challenged a later point.
"In the fourth, it sure seemed like we were letting them dictate things a little more than we had earlier in the match,'' McCutcheon said. "We were just struggling to get any kind of offensive rhythm [in the fifth]. We were still in it, with some nice defensive plays. But we couldn't get a point or two at the end when we needed to.
That left the Gophers packing their bags earlier than expected and McCutcheon saddened by the sudden end.
"I'm really proud of our team for the overall body of work, given how strange this year has been for everybody," he said. "For us to have the kind of year we did in conference, and then come out here and compete the way we did, I'm not ashamed of our performance. I'm just disappointed in our loss."
The Star Tribune did not travel for this event. This article was written using the television broadcast and video interviews before and/or after the event.