OMAHA – The Gophers wanted this moment, a rematch with Creighton in the second round of the NCAA volleyball tournament, to showcase the growth they have displayed since losing to the Bluejays in September.
Turns out Creighton has been improving, too.
The Bluejays defeated the Gophers 25-21, 25-20, 29-27 Saturday night behind a swelling home crowd to reach the Sweet 16. It was a match where they exploited the right matchups and did just enough in a thrilling third set after Minnesota found some answers.
For the Gophers, there simply wasn't enough time.
"When I look out on the court and I'm watching plays, I'm just seeing places where we didn't develop," Gophers coach Keegan Cook said. "We were on our way … but time is precious and we just didn't teach and learn with enough ferocity here."
Creighton and their fan base have been yearning for this moment and the sold-out D.J. Sokol Arena didn't disappoint.
The Bluejays, undefeated here this season, have become a tournament mainstay under coach Kirsten Bernthal Booth but have struggled to reach the second weekend. Their fans knew the magnitude of this match and were rabid.
They exploded when Cook called timeouts after Creighton went on a scoring run. Students in blue and white face paint and pinstripe pants barked like dogs anytime the Gophers went back to serve.
"We have hosted a lot of years and never come out of it," Booth said. "It has been hard. … I think they willed us tonight a little bit. They were incredible."
It was the kind of atmosphere that college volleyball fans exalt in, and the Gophers seemed uncomfortable in the early goings. Booth said Creighton had one key matchup they wanted to win: slow down Lydia Grote.
The Bluejays used a substitution pattern to get Norah Sis, a stellar outside hitter, on Grote and it worked. She was held to a minus-.056 hitting percentage one night after leading the Gophers in kills against Utah State.
This was the kind of match where one substitution could make a difference. And the first two sets slipped away as the Gophers offense was pressured out of rhythm, staying alive through sheer force of will and running all over the court to keep balls up.
The third set took that to another level.
"We just had to fight," Gophers libero Kylie Murr said. "Our life was on the line. Our season was on the line. We dug in and fought."
It was a showcase of the Gophers' best characteristic this season: their resolve. They crawled to keep points alive, literally, with Zeynep Palabiyik hitting a pass over from her stomach. Melani Shaffmaster used all of her offensive tools to help the Gophers build a 18-14 lead. Even that wasn't enough as Sis and Kendra Wait varied their attack to even the match while the crowd screamed, "Let's Go Jays!"
The set tightened and swayed. Extra points heaved with tension. The Gophers had set points, and couldn't get the ball down. Creighton finally won, after a Cook challenge, on a kill by Ellie Bichelmeyer.
It brought an end to a few things: Cook's first season as Gophers coach, and the careers of Murr and Phoebe Awoleye.
"I will remember them forever," Cook said of this roster. "I will remember them when we are doing big things. I know in that moment I will think about these guys and know they were the first stone in place to get us back where we want to be."
Murr explained what she told her teammates in the locker room, her voice shaking slightly. "I told them I can't wait to see them succeed in the future, they have so many people that care about them," she said.
"They're on it. They're just going to be so good and I can't wait to watch them going forward. I'll always be their biggest fan."