Brittany McLean had played a combined total nine sets in her two seasons with the Gophers prior to Friday evening.
But in her NCAA tournament debut, not only did she feature in all three sets of the Gophers’ victory against North Dakota at Maturi Pavilion in front of an announced 4,526, she also led the game with 13 kills. And while she was only, like, five years old when that hit Michelle Branch song came out, that hook seemed to be what the sophomore channeled en route to a breakout performance.
“I guess at first, I was pretty nervous throughout the day,” McLean said. “But I have my teammates to help calm me down, especially a couple on the sidelines who just take me aback and say, like, “Breathe.” One thing our team that we do a lot is just focusing on the breaths. That really helped me out a lot tonight.”
The No. 7 seed Gophers (27-5) won 25-20, 25-15, 25-21 to repeat history against the Fighting Hawks (30-8), who also dropped in three to the Gophers in the same time, same place as last year. The Gophers are 5-0 all time vs. North Dakota and will face Northern Iowa (27-8) at Saturday night at Maturi Pavilion in the second round. Northern Iowa beat Louisville also in three sets earlier Friday.
Gophers coach Hugh McCutcheon said he keeps track every player’s performance every day and saw McLean’s rise throughout the past six weeks. And after a solid two-set performance against No. 1 Penn State a week ago, McCutcheon said McLean earned the increased playing time.
“She’s very steady offensively. We like that. She hits it in a lot and works the ball with some good range. She’s good on first contact and also does a nice job blocking up there,” McCutcheon said of the 6-1 outside hitter from Rosemount. “So it’s really nice for me, personally, after spending a couple years with Britt to see her grow and evolve into this and to take on this job and do such a nice, have such a nice performance tonight.”
Alexis Hart also had 10 kills, and Samantha Seliger-Swenson recorded 30 assists and 20 digs. Senior libero Dalianliz Rosado also had 11 sets and 15 digs. In all, the Gophers hit .260 to the Fighting Hawks’ .140.
Despite North Dakota’s starting lineup being more experienced with five upperclassmen to the Gophers’ three, North Dakota coach Mark Pryor said he felt his players’ emotions “got away” from them a bit when they realized how well they actually matched up with the Gophers. Meanwhile, McCutcheon said he has been impressed this season with the “control” his young team has shown over its adrenaline.
Some maybe good news for the Gophers as far as their second round matchup is Northern Iowa coach Bobbi Petersen said her coaching staff had not scouted beyond her team’s first-round opponent. McCutcheon said earlier in the week his staff scouted all teams playing at Maturi Pavilion this weekend.
“I have had the opportunity to see Minnesota a lot on TV this year, and obviously, big, physical team,” Petersen said. “Very special setter [in Seliger-Swenson], probably the best setter in the country. Play great defense.
“I can guarantee you, we’ll be up all night figuring it out,” Petersen said of how to play the Gophers. “But we haven’t figured it out yet.”