Before the Gophers faced Jackson State on Friday, Hannah Tapp walked into the Sports Pavilion and felt her heart beat a little faster. “It was great coming out there after the [first] match and seeing a packed Pav,’’ the junior middle blocker said. “That energy really fuels us.’’
The announced crowd of 5,167 gave the Gophers a lift in their opening match of the NCAA tournament, roaring throughout a 3-0 victory over the Lady Tigers. But the group effort didn’t come strictly from the stands. The fourth-ranked Gophers spread the workload all across the court, winning 25-9, 25-13, 25-17 to earn a place in Saturday’s second round against Marquette at the Sports Pavilion.
The Gophers (27-4) returned to the NCAA tournament after a year away and showed off the same precise teamwork that won them their first Big Ten title since 2002. Hannah Tapp (12 kills), Daly Santana (11) and Sarah Wilhite (10) wore down the Lady Tigers with a barrage of big hits, while freshman setter Samantha Seliger-Swenson racked up 43 assists. The Gophers hit a blistering .562 — their best percentage since a 1998 match against Buffalo — and served up six aces to the Lady Tigers’ one.
The victory moved the Gophers, the No. 2 overall seed in the tournament, to 19-1 in NCAA first-round games and pushed their record at the Sports Pavilion to 14-0. Saturday’s winner advances to the Sweet 16 and will play next weekend in the Des Moines regional.
“I thought our team for the most part was pretty clean,’’ Gophers coach Hugh McCutcheon said. “I thought we executed at a high level. We’re certainly happy with the performance, happy with the win and happy to be moving on in the tournament.’’
The Gophers overpowered a much smaller Jackson State team that began the season 0-18 but compiled a 15-3 record after that and won the Southwestern Athletic Conference tournament to earn an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. While the Gophers have 11 players on the roster who are 6 feet or taller, the Lady Tigers have only four 6-footers, and eight of their players are 5-9 or shorter.
Jackson State did not shrink from the challenge. Senior setter Keirsten Howard said she felt the same thrill as Tapp did when she walked into the Pavilion to see fans stacked to the rafters. “It wasn’t intimidating or anything like that,’’ she said. “It was breathtaking.’’
Howard said the Gophers occasionally took the Lady Tigers’ breath away, too. Howard’s service ace tied the score 4-4 in the opening set before the Gophers took off on a 9-2 run. After Jackson State pulled within 14-9, the Gophers closed out the set with 11 consecutive points.
The Gophers, Santana said, wanted to make good initial contact to allow Seliger-Swenson to set up her hitters. Seliger-Swenson spread the ball around for 49 kills in the match, with Molly Lohman (eight kills) and Paige Tapp (six) joining the charge.
In the second set, the Gophers raced to a 5-0 lead and hammered 18 kills on 26 attempts. Jackson State sharpened up in the third, taking a lead for the first time in the match, but Santana crushed five kills in the set — including four near the end — to wrap up the sweep.
“We create our own energy, but we feed off the energy the crowd gives us, too,’’ Santana said. “Now we move on. We will come out ready to battle [Saturday].’’