The Gophers volleyball team had belief, momentum and was playing its best volleyball of the season at just the right time.
Then Emily Londot showed up.
The Ohio State junior opposite hitter put together an incredible performance on Thursday in the NCAA Sweet 16 with 29 kills and 13 digs to lead the Buckeyes past the Gophers in four sets, 22-25, 25-21, 25-21, 25-19.
It took that kind of performance to end the coaching career of Hugh McCutcheon, who previously announced he will resign after 11 seasons leading the Gophers.
Speaking during a video news conference after the match, McCutcheon focused not on the loss of a potential story book ending but on his gratitude for a team that rallied around his final campaign as coach.
"I just told the team I was extremely grateful and proud of this season," he said. "I think Gophers volleyball is going to be just fine."
Few teams could have found an answer for the level of play that Londot and the Buckeyes showcased.
"She was phenomenal," McCutcheon said. "A great performance. If she's going to hit .500 for the rest of the tournament, then I like the Buckeyes to win it all. I mean it was impressive."
At the start of the match it felt like Minnesota was going to match her firepower. The first set was electric.
Both teams traded blows as the Gophers were the team that looked unstoppable, hitting .500 for the set as Big Ten Player of the Year Taylor Landfair had six kills on eight attempts. But, in a glimpse of things to come, the Buckeyes were just as fierce, hitting .433 as Londot tallied eight kills on 11 attempts.
It still looked like Minnesota's match early in the second when the Gophers jumped out to a 6-2 lead. Then everything changed.
All of a sudden the Gophers offense lost its firepower. Their serve reception started to falter, passes went awry and the attack suffered. Their defense, stellar all season, couldn't make up the difference. After hitting .500 in the first, the Gophers would hit .000 in the second, .219 in the third and .054 in the fourth.
"In the first set we were really disciplined with our block and our defensive positions, but ... they were mixing in a lot of tips and off-speed, and we weren't able to make adjustments quick enough," Gophers libero CC McGraw said. "It was just a lingering issue the whole match. … There were glimpses, but we weren't consistently solid there."
The Buckeyes would outhit the Gophers .298 to .173 overall.
Landfair led Minnesota with 16 kills while Jenna Wenaas had nine kills and 14 digs and freshman Mckenna Wucherer posted nine kills. But every rally the Gophers tried to make was rebuffed and in the crucial moments they faltered.
"We lost our way on the offensive end a little bit and they made some adjustments, I'm sure," McCutcheon said. "It was just a struggle to kill the ball in that second set and that made it more challenging."
It wasn't just McCutcheon's tenure that ended in the regional semifinals; McGraw capped a five-year career and was everywhere on Thursday, with a game-high 17 digs and two aces.
"To be a part of this team, to be a part of this program, have another year learning from Hugh and the rest of the coaching staff was just a blessing," she said. "It wasn't the outcome we wanted, but I wouldn't change a thing."
But things will change for the Gophers. They have the potential to bring back a supremely talented roster — Wucherer and Carter Booth will be sophomores, Landfair and Arica Davis juniors, and Wenaas and setter Melani Shaffmaster seniors.
Associate head coach Matt Houk will take over as interim coach while the athletic department searches for McCutcheon's replacement.
McCutcheon's program reached eight-straight Sweet 16s. And after he announced his resignation in October, this team rallied to find a higher level of play. On Thursday, Ohio State simply went higher.
"We have a lot of depth and youth on this team," McCutcheon said. "Unfortunately, when it comes to these moments, experience is the teacher, and they'll be a lot better in a year's time."
The Star Tribune did not send the writer of this article to the game. This was written using a broadcast, interviews and other material.