GAINESVILLE, FLA. - After back-to-back trips to the NCAA Final Four, Minnesota arrived in Gainesville looking to keep its streak of postseason success alive. But the best efforts of the underclassmen-laden Gophers wouldn’t be enough to overcome a disciplined performance from the University of Southern California.
The seventh-seeded Gophers saw their season end Friday in a three-set loss to the No. 10-seeded Trojans in an NCAA regional semifinal by scores of 25-23, 28-26, 25-16.
“Sometimes it happens, it’s an occupational hazard. When you compete for a ribbon, sometimes you win, sometimes you don’t,” sixth-year Gophers coach Hugh McCutcheon said. “For us, we struggled to find our rhythm and, in large part, that had to do with some nice blocking defense on their part. So very proud of our team, obviously disappointed with tonight’s result, but we’ll get some lessons learned and come back next year and have another crack at it.”
After dropping a tightly contested opening set, the Gophers emerged refocused and looking to pull even with USC (25-9). But the Trojans, who struggled this season with subpar defense, had made adjustments of their own. The teams traded leads until the Trojans strung together successive kills to secure the second set, keeping momentum on USC’s side heading into the third.
“They dig well, and like I said, the transition game was probably a little stronger. I think that was the difference — they were able to dig some balls and turn points out of the system,” McCutcheon said. “We tried, but not on the same level.”
USC led for the entirety of the third set to clinch the victory and secure a matchup vs. No. 2 seed and regional host Florida (28-1) at 5 p.m. Saturday.
The Gophers (28-6) finished the season with a 6-1 record in matches held at neutral locations.
“We’re a good team, you know, and we ran into another good team,” McCutcheon said. “As far as tonight, the thing that’s disappointing is, we were struggling to find our rhythm. It felt like we were a little out of sync most of the evening. And that’s hard when you feel like maybe one or two plays could have made the difference in the match.”
Freshman opposite Stephanie Samedy, a native of Clermont, Fla., paced Minnesota with 13 kills on 37 swings. As a team, the Gophers finished the match hitting .221 to USC’s .256.
Alexis Hart provided 13 kills on 38 swings for the Gophers, consistently keeping the Minnesota offense afloat on out-of-system balls, while junior setter Samantha Seliger-Swenson finished with 36 of the team’s 40 assists.
The Gophers outplayed the Trojans throughout the match in several critical aspects — USC had 20 attack errors to 14 by the Gophers and Minnesota had a 11-9 edge in team blocks — but those pluses weren’t enough to turn the tide.
For the team’s four seniors, seeing the season conclude before meeting internal expectations was tough to talk about, but Gophers middle blockers Maddie Beal and Molly Lohman gracefully addressed the conclusion of their collegiate careers.
“We came into a program that was just changing its culture, and we’ve worked so hard every single day to become a better teammate and a better team. Even just a better all-around person, and it’s been an amazing journey,” Lohman said. “It has been an amazing journey. I can’t really put it into words.”
Beal concurred that despite the disappointing finish, the future of the program appears brighter than when the 2014 class arrived on campus.
“Every team that we’ve had here has been such an amazing group of girls,” Beal said. “The team has a ton of depth, and I’m so excited to see where they go. They’re going to come back even stronger next year.”