Coach Hugh McCutcheon’s Gophers volleyball team is ready for the postseason — which starts next week.
Minnesota, after losing the first two sets to No. 1 Nebraska, roared back to beat the defending NCAA champions 21-25, 22-25, 28-26, 25-17, 17-15 on Wednesday night at the Sports Pavilion before a sellout crowd of 5,401.
Senior Sarah Wilhite led No. 2 Minnesota (24-4, 16-3 Big Ten) with 19 kills and 25 digs.
“We are a team who works hard no matter,” Wilhite said. “We did not give up after the second set. We didn’t give up when we were down 21-23 in the third [set].
“We have a lot of belief and confidence. Gophers volleyball is just amazing to be part of — the team unified, the whole entire thing. The bench does a great job. The people on the court stick together. The coaches do a good job. We are definitely a unit.”
Nebraska arrived with a 14-match winning streak and the opportunity to clinch at least a share of the Big Ten title with a win.
And it seemed for a while the Cornhuskers (26-2, 17-2 Big Ten) would do just that. At 21-all in the first set, they got the next four points. At 22-all in the second, they got three points in a row to win that set as well.
Then came the break.
And McCutcheon, in his fourth season at Minnesota, knew what was going wrong and what to say.
“Obviously, Nebraska is a very good team,” he said to a reporter afterward. “And defensively they were playing with a lot of discipline. In the beginning of the match, our athletes thought they had to do something special to get the ball to the floor. So we ended up forcing some stuff, especially out of system.”
So McCutcheon told his players what he needed from them: “A lot of hard work for a long period of time. And if we kept making good plays for long enough we would have a chance.”
The third set was tied at 24, 25 and 26 before a kill by Gophers freshman Alexis Hart and a Huskers’ error got Minnesota within 2-1.
“The we hit three or four [hundred] in the fourth set,” McCutcheon said.
Actually Minnesota hit .304 to Nebraska’s .102 in taking leads of 5-0 and 9-0 and winning the fourth set decisively by eight points.
“It was a couple of heavyweights gong toe-to-toe in the fifth,” McCutcheon said, “and we were able to turn it at the end.”
The fifth set was tied a 13, 14 and 15, but a Nebraska service error — one of 11 — and a block by Wilhite and Molly Lohman ended the match.
“These matches are very rare when you get this kind of environment, when you get this kind of team” to face, McCutcheon said, “and you get a chance to really be put to a test. We learned a ton tonight. We also grew a little bit. We got to evolve.”
Kadie Rolfzen led the Cornhuskers, who hit .183 to the Gophers’ .200 for the match, with 20 kills and 10 digs.
The match took 2 hours and 48 minutes. There were 39 ties and 15 lead changes.
Nebraska had beaten the Gophers in five sets in Lincoln on Oct. 23.
Besides Wilhite, several other Gophers also had big matches. Setter Samantha Seliger-Swenson had 59 assists and 19 digs. Hannah Tapp had 16 kills and three blocks, Hart 12 kills, Paige Tapp — Hannah’s twin sister — 11 kills and four blocks. And Lohman, a 6-3 middle blocker, nine kills and a team-high seven blocks. Lohman hit .533.
“Samantha did a really good job of balancing the offense and getting the ball to the middle and right sides,” Wilhite said, “and it opened things for me and Lexi on the outside and just changed the game. I don’t think they were able to stop us offensively.”
“What a night,” Seliger-Swenson tweeted. “So thankful for moments like this.”
The win improves the Gophers’ home record to 12-0, including three consecutive five-set wins, over Michigan State and Michigan last weekend and now Nebraska.
The Gophers end the regular season with No. 3 Wisconsin (25-3, 17-2) at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Sports Pavilion. The Badgers beat Iowa 3-1 on Wednesday.
The NCAA seedings will be announced at 8 p.m. Sunday on ESPNU. If the Gophers can beat the Badgers again — Minnesota won 3-0 in Madison on Oct. 12 — they could get the No. 1 seed overall.