The Gophers are getting used to heart-pounding victories.
Three nights after coming back from an 0-2 hole to defeat No. 1 Nebraska, the second-ranked Gophers volleyball team found more in the tank on Senior Night. Minnesota struggled for stretches in front of a standing-room-only crowd of 5,307 but once again roared back, this time defeating No. 3 Wisconsin 22-25, 25-17, 11-25, 25-17, 15-8 on Saturday night at the Sports Pavilion.
It was the Gophers’ fourth consecutive five-set win at home — after wins over Michigan State and Michigan last weekend — and extends Minnesota’s home winning streak to 28 matches, the last 13 this season.
“I can’t imagine there’s been a better series of four matches in eight days played by any team … just an incredible, incredible performance by this team,” Gophers coach Hugh McCutcheon said. “I am so proud of them.”
Two of the six seniors, Sarah Wilhite and Paige Tapp, especially had huge nights.
Wilhite, who had 19 kills against the Cornhuskers, had a match-high 23 against Wisconsin. Ten of those came in the fourth set. And, in the deciding fifth set, the Gophers’ first five points came off Wilhite’s right arm. Then, on match point, she got the kill through a Badgers’ double block.
“Sarah is the type of player that once she finds her rhythm, she is very, very hard to stop because she has so much range,” McCutcheon said.
The 6-1 outside hitter struggled early as did some of her teammates as Wisconsin took a 2-1 lead.
So what changed for her?
“I just approached it a little bit different,” Wilhite said. “Katie [Schau, a teammate] actually pulled me aside and just told me to be the leader that I have been this season and challenged me to step up and demand the ball. Go to Sam [Seliger-Swenson] and tell her to set me. ... Just taking charge in the back row, too, doing what I can to help the team.”
Tapp finished with a career-high 21 kills, and hit a team high .594 with seven digs.
“It was a real special performance; Paige is a very good volleyball player and that was proven tonight.” McCutcheon said. “A lot of great serves and defense and, on top of that, just a phenomenal night at the net.”
“We knew that we could play a lot better,” Paige Tapp said about Minnesota (25-4, 17-3) falling behind. “We just needed some defensive discipline and to be a little braver on offense a bit. And I think we brought it in the fourth and fifth sets.
The Gophers hit .415 and .632 in those final two sets to finish at .273 for the match to the Badgers’ .269.
Wisconsin (25-4, 17-3) came into its last regular-season match of the season tied with Nebraska for first place in the Big Ten. The loss Badgers dropped into a tie for second with the Gopher while the Cornhuskers clinched an outright title by defeating No. 15 Michigan 25-19, 25-17, 22-25, 25-21 in Lincoln.
Revenge also had to be on Wisconsin’s mind. The Gophers swept the then-No. 1 Badgers 3-0 on Oct. 12 in Madison.
“The early match — we had a nice match — and [the Badgers] would say that was not one of their better performances,” McCutcheon said. “Tonight they played like the team they are. They are ranked No. 3 in the nation for a reason. They really defended very well in the first couple sets.
The Badgers had five players with double-digit kills, led by 17 from Molly Hagerty.
The Gophers had only two in that category, but freshman Alexis Hart came off the bench to get nine kills and Seliger-Swenson had 51 assists and 16 digs.
Once Minnesota went ahead 8-7 in the fourth set on a Badgers attack error, the home team never trailed again in its 10th consecutive victory.
Now the Gophers will gather Sunday night to watch the NCAA selection show (8 p.m., ESPNU) and find out how their seed and first-round opponent in the NCAA tournament.
Either Minnesota or Nebraska, the defending national champion, should get the top overall seed, with the other getting the second.