Nebraska had taken care of Kentucky with a three-set sweep in the Minneapolis Regional on Friday. This set up the possibility the Cornhuskers would be playing Big Ten rival Minnesota, on the Gophers’ home floor, on Saturday for a place in the volleyball Final Four.
Coach John Cook was asked about the chance for the latest representative of his powerhouse program to “ruin the party for the Gophers,” the No. 2-seeded team in the NCAA tournament and the host school for next week’s Final Four at Target Center.
“It would be what college sports are about,” Cook said. “We’ve been there ourselves, when the Final Four was in Omaha. It’s exciting, there’s pressure, it’s nerve-wracking.”
The 2015 Cornhuskers made it through a rugged regional on its home court in Lincoln, and then won the Final Four in Omaha. Last year, they did that again in Kansas City.
Nebraska was back in the team hotel, fed and resting, when it became official there would be no party for the Huskers to ruin:
The Gophers lost in four sets to No. 15-seeded Oregon and their season ended with a 27-4 record: two losses to the Ducks (on Sept. 7 and Friday), one to Stanford (on Sept. 9) and only one (to Penn State) as they swept through the Big Ten with a 19-1 record.
Two of those wins were over Nebraska in four sets. Cook and his players had spent two days here in Minneapolis for the regional laying out the challenge for the Gophers — describing the Huskers as the most improved team in America and in a mood for revenge this weekend.
And now they get Oregon. And the Gophers wound up with another full house of fans filing out of the Pavilion around 6 p.m., murmuring to another that the home team could be proud, that this had been a tremendous season.
That wasn’t the unanimous reaction to be found on social media. The phrase “choke” was being used, as the volleyball Gophers had somehow bowed to the wracked nerves of trying to get to the hometown Final Four.
Emotion did lead to this upset of the Gophers, but it wasn’t because of wracked nerves and distracted play due to the possibility of being on a huge stage next week at Target Center.
The emotion that defeated the Gophers came in the second set that was taken away by Oregon 41-39. As the teams passed 25 points and fought for a winning two-point margin, the Gophers served on nine set points and the Ducks on eight.
The Gophers felt they had it won when originally awarded a point at 38-37. Oregon challenged, of course, and the referee decided Samantha Seliger-Swenson did not get her hand under the ball to keep it alive. The point and the serve went to Oregon, and soon the match.
The Gophers came out dead for the third set and were blown out 25-14. And they could not solve the Oregon defense — a block led by Lauren Page and accompanied by relentless digs — and lost the fourth set 26-24.
This was the last match of Seliger-Swenson’s career, No. 134. She was the standout setter, this game’s version of a quarterback, during a four-year run when Gophers volleyball made this transition:
It went from attracting a good-sized legion of Pavilion loyalists that acted as if it was in on a great secret for sports entertainment, to receiving interest from mainstream followers of Twin Cities sports (some, not all).
I mean, the suggestions on Twitter that the Gophers had “choked” was an indication that even sports knotheads had started to pay attention.
Yes, this was a magnificent time for big-time volleyball in Minnesota, starting with the back-to-back Final Fours in 2015 and ’16, and ending in disappointing fashion, and Samantha Seliger-Swenson, Triple S to me, was the maestro in the middle of all of it.
Oregon coach Matt Ulmer offered this aside in his delighted postgame remarks: “I think their setter is really one of a kind.”
A few minutes later, Seliger-Swenson was sitting between coach Hugh McCutcheon and teammate Taylor Morgan. She was composed, but with red eyes from prior tears, when a question was offered with the precede:
“You’re both going to be back next season …”
Samantha looked and said: “Not me.”
Coach Hugh McCutcheon’s retort had more an edge: “Rubbing salt in the wound there, buddy.”
The salty challenge for McCutcheon becomes replacing Seliger-Swenson. Good luck there. The career of Triple S ended a week earlier than hoped, and without changing the truth that she’s an all-time great Gopher, in the all-sports-on-campus category.