When the bracket for the NCAA volleyball tournament was announced last Sunday, a gasp rose in the Williams Arena club room. The boosters gathered there were stunned to see 12th-ranked Hawaii among the four teams that would play the first and second rounds in Minneapolis, worrying that the Rainbow Wahine would be an extremely tough matchup for the top-ranked Gophers if they met in the second round.
Coach Hugh McCutcheon put a positive spin on it, saying the bracket was “awesome.’’ On Saturday, his team rose to the challenge, sweeping away any concerns with a 25-17, 25-17, 25-19 victory over Hawaii to earn a place in the Sweet 16.
As the No. 2 seed in the tournament, the Gophers (27-4) will host the regionals next Friday and Saturday. They will face No. 18 Missouri in Friday’s regional semifinal.
Hawaii’s chances were diminished when star Nikki Taylor injured her left ankle only minutes into the match. Taylor, a two-time Big West Conference Player of the Year, stepped on another player’s foot and collapsed in pain. The match was halted for several minutes while Taylor’s ankle was bandaged and she was helped off the floor.
That briefly quieted a rambunctious crowd announced at 5,442, which saw the Gophers win their 12th consecutive match and their 34th in a row at the Pavilion. Sarah Wilhite contributed 13 kills and 11 digs, while Paige Tapp and Molly Lohman had 10 kills each in an assured, balanced performance.
“We’re very happy to be moving on,’’ McCutcheon said. “This weekend felt more like a regional than it did a first or second round. These were two very good teams.
“It was disappointing to see [Taylor] get hurt. She was a big part of Hawaii’s plan. We can only control the things we can, and we had to get back to work.’’
Their nervous fans felt the same. They packed the Pavilion to the hilt, with tickets in such demand that scalpers worked the sidewalks outside in the cold.
Last season, the Gophers defeated Hawaii 3-1 in the regional final to earn a place in the Final Four. The Rainbow Wahine took five sets to oust USC in Friday’s first round, while the Gophers started with a sweep of North Dakota. Saturday, the emotions of the match swung wildly, as Taylor’s injury in the first set affected both Hawaii and the Gophers.
Hawaii coach Dave Shoji said Taylor — who had 23 kills Friday —either sprained or fractured her ankle. Shortly after she left, the Rainbow Wahine scored consecutive points to tie it 3-3. The Gophers responded with a 6-0 rush, taking command in the set.
The Gophers hit .242 in the first set, while Hawaii hit .079 and committed eight attack errors as it tried to regroup.
“We’re not the same team without Nikki Taylor,’’ Shoji said. “When she went down, we had no answer.
“I’m proud of our team. We fought hard, and we didn’t give up. But we just didn’t have enough firepower to match Minnesota.’’
Shoji had to improvise, trying different lineup combinations to try and create a consistent attack. Taylor’s absence forced the Gophers to adjust their defense, but their offense carried the day. Samantha Seliger-Swenson worked in sweet harmony with her hitters, dishing up a boatload of perfect balls that her teammates pounded through the Hawaii defense.
Seliger-Swenson, the Big Ten setter of the year, created opportunities for everyone in the Gophers’ bountiful stable of hitters. A 13-4 run in the second set gave them a big cushion before Hawaii closed the gap to 16-12. The Gophers responded with a 5-1 run, including two kills by Paige Tapp and a kill and block by Lohman.
After Hawaii tied the third set 9-9, the Gophers won 10 of the next 11 points. They hit progressively better in each set and finished with a hitting percentage of .348.
With two sweeps behind them, the Gophers don’t plan to rest much before next weekend’s matches.
“As you get further into this tournament, the margins get thinner and thinner,’’ McCutcheon said. “There are definitely some opportunities for improvement for us. We’ll get to work on those on Monday.’’