Though it might seem counterintuitive, Gophers coach Hugh McCutcheon wasn’t rooting for an easy match to start the NCAA tournament. He wanted his team to have to work Friday for a first-round victory over North Dakota, just as they toiled in a stretch of grueling five-set matches to end the regular season.
The No. 1 Gophers made a quicker night of it, sweeping the Fighting Hawks 25-21, 25-12, 25-20 at the Sports Pavilion. But with a tough second-round match looming Saturday — against No. 12 Hawaii — McCutcheon was glad to get a good fight in the tournament opener. After withstanding a North Dakota rally to win the first set, the Gophers (26-4) opened the second on a 10-0 run, then got another brisk start to the third set on their way to their 33rd home victory in a row.
A manic crowd announced at 5,366 saw a well-balanced attack led by Sarah Wilhite, who provided a team-high 17 kills while sharing the load. Freshman Alexis Hart added nine kills, Paige and Hannah Tapp had eight each and Molly Lohman finished with seven. The Gophers, who outhit North Dakota .349 to .147, also got 39 assists and 10 digs from setter Samantha Seliger-Swenson.
“I thought it was a good match, because North Dakota is a good team,” said McCutcheon, who is 4-0 in first-round NCAA matches. “They made us work. Believe it or not, I like that.
“I thought it was good for us to have to figure out ways to win. I think it sets us up nicely for the battle to come [Saturday].”
North Dakota, making its first appearance in the NCAA Division I tournament, came to the Pavilion with a bevy of green-clad fans and a belief it could hang with the nation’s top-ranked team. The Fighting Hawks ended the season with a 26-10 record — but not before pushing the Gophers in two of three sets.
Coach Mark Pryor thought the Gophers might be ripe for a letdown. They had expended a wealth of sweat and emotion in their final four matches of the regular season, playing 20 sets in eight days against four ranked opponents. In winning all four, the Gophers learned much about their fortitude and problem-solving ability, qualities they carried over into Friday’s match.
Three kills by Wilhite lifted the Gophers to a quick 7-3 lead in the first set. That grew to 14-8 before North Dakota reeled off seven consecutive points, including three aces by Teo Tepavac.
That put North Dakota ahead 15-14. The Gophers ended the set on a 9-4 run and sealed it with a fierce kill by Hart, but they weren’t happy with the effort.
“We came out strong, then we let them creep in a little bit,” Wilhite said. “For the second set, we made it a goal to stay strong for the entire set. I think we did that. We kept pushing back and didn’t let up at all.”
With Seliger-Swenson serving to start the second set, the Gophers rolled to a 10-0 lead. They demonstrated their determination on one long, scrambling point, chasing down balls all over the court before Lohman and Paige Tapp ended it with a stout block on Chelsea Moser. The Fighting Hawks could not catch up as they finished the set with nine attack errors and only seven kills.
Pryor praised his team for its grit in the third set, when it overcame a 7-3 deficit to tie the score at 10-10. But a 5-1 spurt by the Gophers gave them the lead for good.
“Once we had a little bit of a calming moment [in the first set], we really played well, right up until the last four or five points,” Pryor said. “That second set, they really kind of put the hammer down early on.
“For portions of this match, we looked pretty solid. There’s nothing for us to be ashamed of. We were able to score some, and we caused them some problems.”
And that, McCutcheon said, wasn’t a bad thing at all — even if his players were relieved by the sweep.
“It was nice to not have to play [five sets],” Lohman said. “But we’re ready for anything.”