The message was meant for every Gophers player on the volleyball court. Mostly, though, Taylor Morgan needed to say it to herself.
“It’s not over yet,’’ Morgan told her teammates Saturday night, when Creighton stood only one point away from upsetting the Gophers in the second round of the NCAA tournament. “We’re still in it. We’re still good. Sometimes, if you say it out loud, it kind of registers in your head, like, ‘This is for real.’ And I started to believe it.’’
It took the belief of every Gophers player to pull out a 3-2 victory at Maturi Pavilion, sending the Gophers to the Sweet 16. They won 25-13, 19-25, 15-25, 26-24, 15-10 in a thrilling, emotionally draining match, pulling their season from the brink with a lionhearted rally before a crowd announced at 4,003.
Down 24-22 in the fourth set, Morgan and Stephanie Samedy rose up for a block. That started a string of four consecutive points to capture the set, evening the match at 2-2.
Then the Gophers defense stood tall in the fifth, recording five blocks to win the match. They will play Florida in next weekend’s regional semifinal in Austin, Texas.
Morgan, a senior middle blocker, finished with nine blocks and four kills. Adanna Rollins and Alexis Hart led the Gophers with 14 kills each. The Gophers outblocked Creighton 15-10 and outhit the Bluejays .141 to .110.
Gophers coach Hugh McCutcheon praised his team for being able to manage its emotions in a dire situation. After a magnificent first set, the Gophers lost their rhythm amid a rash of mistakes in the second and third sets, then regathered themselves for a final stand.
“In that first set, we set an expectation,’’ he said. “Then all of a sudden, it’s not rainbows and ponies any more. We were having to grind. We really had to shift our approach to, ‘We’re in the trenches, and we’re fighting for our lives.’ And that’s exactly what it was.’’
The tournament’s No. 7 seed, the Gophers used sterling serving and defense to keep Creighton on the run during the opening set. It set the tone for a match that featured many long, hard-fought points, with two stellar defenses.
The Gophers had four aces in the first set and held Creighton to a hitting percentage of .023. In the second set, though, the Gophers began making unforced errors. The Bluejays scored the final four points to win the set, then scored the first four points of the third set to maintain the momentum.
In the third, the Gophers never led. Creighton’s freshman phenom, Keeley Davis, had seven of her match-high 18 kills, and the Bluejays seemed to dig or block everything the Gophers sent at them.
That continued in the fourth, as they reached match point.
“One mistake led to another one, and it kind of got into our heads,’’ Hart said. “We did a really good job of relaxing and taking a deep breath, and that’s when things calmed down.’’
Morgan hoped her pep talk would settle her team. She and Hart, both seniors, thought about last season — when the Gophers lost to Oregon in the regional semifinal at Maturi Pavilion — and did not want their final match at the Pav to break their hearts.
They pulled out the fourth set, then prevailed in a back-and-forth fifth.
“A little bit of doubt crept in,’’ Morgan said. “Then you just look at the girls on the team, and it was like, ‘Nah. We ain’t going out like that.’
“To go out and play that game, and show resilience and grit, to just keep battling, it felt good.’’