When the Gophers women's volleyball team sat out the fall during the pandemic, it was hard to imagine what the late start to the Big Ten season would bring, let alone having to play the NCAA tournament in a bubble in April.
After being battle tested during a grueling conference-only schedule that started in January, the third-seeded Gophers got off to a strong start to the postseason Thursday with a 25-19, 25-21, 25-18 victory against Georgia Tech in the NCAA second round in Omaha.
The Gophers (15-2) advanced to the Sweet 16 to play Sunday vs. Pittsburgh. Big Ten Player of the Year Stephanie Samedy and Adanna Rollins led Minnesota with 13 kills apiece.
"I feel like we were waiting so long to play," Rollins said. "We were so excited to get out there."
After losing to NCAA No. 1 seed Wisconsin on March 21 at Maturi Pavilion, the Gophers won four straight matches to end the Big Ten season, but they hadn't played since April 3. That rust showed a bit early against the Yellow Jackets, who defeated Lipscomb in four sets in Wednesday's opening round.
Samedy went 0-for-4 to open the match, but she got a boost from Rollins and two of the top freshmen in the Big Ten. In their first NCAA tournament appearance, Taylor Landfair and Melani Shaffmaster helped to set the tone throughout.
Shaffmaster, a 6-3 setter, put together back-to-back points with an ace and her first of two first-set kills after Georgia Tech's 6-5 lead. Shaffmaster finished with 32 assists.
"She had a really good start in her first NCAA tournament," Gophers coach Hugh McCutcheon said. "She made good choices. She kept hitters in rhythm a lot."
After struggling with efficiency early, the Gophers powered through with a balanced attack that included Samedy finishing out the first set with her first two kills of the night. Landfair had a team-high four kills in the first set.
In the second set, the Yellow Jackets were in control for the first half of the period behind the offense of Mariana Brambilla, who led them with 16 kills. The turning point in the match, though, came when a touch call off Rollins attempting to block a Georgia Tech hitter at the net was overturned to change a 10-7 deficit to 9-8.
The Gophers wouldn't relinquish their lead after Landfair's ace made it 19-16 in the second set.
Rollins had a team-high seven kills in the final and deciding third set, including three straight to finish the match.
Georgia Tech pulled within 19-18 in the third set, but Julia Bergmann followed up her career-high 31 kills in the first round match with only 11 on Thursday. Rollins was proud of the way the Gophers held Bergmann in check to advance.
The Gophers, who reached the Final Four before falling to eventual champion Stanford in 2019, are hoping to peak at the right time during an unusually challenging season.
"There's so much different from whatever normal used to be," McCutcheon said. "We're not playing any matches at home during the NCAA tournament. We're all playing in this bubble. So, it's just different. I'm really proud of the way the team is going about managing all of that."
The Star Tribune did not travel for this game. This article was written using the television broadcast and video interviews before and/or after the game.