COLUMBUS, Ohio – Entering Thursday's NCAA semifinal against Stanford, the Gophers volleyball team knew exactly how it measured up. The Cardinal's hitters towered as high as the tree that serves as the team's mascot, with three key players 6-6 or taller and star Inky Ajanaku a relative shrimp at 6-3.
The top-ranked Gophers had seen Stanford earlier this season, in a four-set loss in August. "You can talk about the fact that the block's going to be sizable, but it had been a while,'' coach Hugh McCutcheon said. "And there's no other team really like that. It took us a while to adjust.''
But it wasn't only Stanford's size that mattered in a 3-1 victory that ended the Gophers' season at Nationwide Arena. In a matchup of two tenacious teams, the No. 9 Cardinal wore down the Gophers by diving under and digging their best shots, outlasting them for a 26-24, 25-19, 22-25, 25-22 victory. That ended the Gophers' 14-match win streak and stopped their season in the NCAA semifinals for the second year in a row.
The Gophers (29-5) got 25 kills from senior outside hitter Sarah Wilhite but saw many of their best assets neutralized. Stanford's stout defense limited the Gophers' usual ability to spread their scoring around, holding Paige Tapp to seven kills and Hannah Tapp to four. The seniors combined for only five kills and committed seven hitting errors in the first three sets.
Like Stanford, which got 27 digs from freshman libero Morgan Hentz, the Gophers demonstrated tremendous grit. That was not enough, as they hit only .149 for the match and had 13.5 team blocks to Stanford's 18.
Stanford (26-7) will play Texas in Saturday's championship. It will be the program's 15th appearance in the title match, the most in history. The fourth-seeded Longhorns swept No. 1 seed Nebraska in Thursday's second match.
"We fought back,'' Wilhite said. "It was just two teams going to battle.
"I'm proud of the way we played, even though we came up short. We never lost belief.''
Stanford ran its record against the Gophers to 8-0, including that victory in August. Though the Gophers got a taste of playing a tall, physical team, much had changed since then.
The nation's top-ranked freshman class had matured quickly, giving the Cardinal a potent and multi-pronged attack. Outside hitter Kathryn Plummer, 6-6 and the national freshman of the year, finished with 15 kills Thursday. Ajanaku also had 15 kills, Hentz topped a Cardinal foursome that reached double digits in digs, and rookie setter Jenna Gray had 49 assists.
The Gophers got the benefit of a large traveling party, with a cluster of fans filling several rows behind the bench. But the festive atmosphere, complete with the pep band, Goldy and giant pictures of players' heads, grew somber as the Gophers tumbled into an 0-2 hole.
In the first set, the Gophers took an 8-6 lead before Stanford gained control with six consecutive points. The Cardinal fell behind 18-17 before regaining the lead with a 4-1 run and closing out the set with two kills and a block by Ajanaku. A Wilhite kill gave the Gophers a 10-9 lead in the second set, but Stanford rallied as the Gophers grew erratic.
"We both needed to have more patience on offense,'' Paige Tapp said of herself and her twin. "[Stanford] was taking away our favorite shots, and we didn't switch it up as quickly as we would have liked.
"Throughout the whole match, it was tough. It was hard to hit against them.''
The Gophers hit .024 in the second set, with nine kills and 10 hitting errors. They rallied in the third, breaking an 18-18 tie to win, and were tied at 21 in the fourth set before Stanford put it away.
Their .149 percentage for the match marked only the third time this season they hit less than .200. Stanford's 18 total blocks were the most given up by the Gophers this season.
"As much as it stings in the short term, when you view the body of work, there is lots to be proud of,'' McCutcheon said. "We have our heads high, even though we didn't get to finish the way we wanted.''