For the first few minutes of Saturday's NCAA regional final, UCLA did everything exactly as coach Michael Sealy planned. Instead of lining up for big swings against the top-ranked Gophers, the Bruins used finesse, racing to a 6-0 lead by repeatedly tipping the ball over the net.
That stunned a Sports Pavilion crowd announced at 5,392 — but the Gophers kept their heads. "We did a good job of coming together and starting to fight back," senior Paige Tapp said. "We decided to make a shift in our attitude. We really just had to push, and come out playing the game we've been playing the last few weeks."
That was all it took to send the Gophers to a sweep of the No. 8 Bruins and back to the Final Four. On a cold, snowy night, they stayed red hot, winning 25-23, 25-20, 25-22 to earn their 14th consecutive victory and their 36th in a row at the Sports Pavilion. The Gophers (29-4) will play No. 6 Stanford in the NCAA semifinals Thursday at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio.
Tapp said her team could have started stronger against UCLA (27-7), which scored three points on those soft tips to seize an immediate lead. They had no complaints about how they finished. The Gophers again showed their adaptability, making defensive adjustments and finding the Bruins' vulnerabilities to swing the match in their favor.
Sarah Wilhite led the Gophers with 15 kills, and freshman Alexis Hart added 11. Libero Dalianliz Rosado had 17 digs — including several that kept the Gophers afloat — and the Gophers had 12 team blocks to UCLA's seven.
The Gophers, who made the Final Four for the second consecutive year, outhit UCLA .229 to .146. They finished their season 17-0 at the Pavilion, marking the second season in a row in which they amassed a perfect home record.
"It was a very challenging match tonight," Gophers coach Hugh McCutcheon said. "I was extremely proud of our athletes for the way they responded to the different style of play we saw from UCLA. We were still able to find ways to close out those sets."
The last time UCLA played in a regional final, it upset top-seeded Texas and went on to win the 2011 NCAA championship. Saturday, it put the Gophers in a quick hole.
The Bruins reeled off the first six points of the match as the Gophers misfired on a kill, mishandled a serve and could not handle UCLA's deft touch at the net. The Gophers gathered themselves, though, and clawed their way back. After they pulled within 8-6, the Bruins stretched the lead back to seven before the Gophers took charge in the late stages.
Strong serving, passing and blocking broke UCLA's rhythm as the Gophers scored four consecutive points to take their first lead, 21-20. The Bruins tied it at 22 before the Gophers closed it out on kills by Wilhite and Hart and an error by Reily Buechler.
"Sometimes those big leads, it's a false sense of security," Sealy said. "I thought [the Gophers] did a great job of slowly coming back. Over the course of three or four rotations, that lead turned down into a two-point lead."
Wilhite said Rosado's strong play in the backcourt, and a Samantha Seliger-Swenson point at the net, helped fuel the Gophers' rally. But the entire team had a part in it.
"I think what got us there was just our defensive effort," Wilhite said. "Throughout the whole thing, we had energy, and we just focused on point to point. That really helped us. But the shift definitely happened from defensive effort."
UCLA took a 7-6 lead in the second set before the Gophers scored seven in a row. Two Wilhite kills, a pair of blocks and three Bruins errors fueled a run that put the Gophers ahead for good. UCLA hit only .156 in the set.