Minnesota falls to Nebraska in Elite Eight

The Gophers became the first team this season to lead the Huskers by two games.

Mark Heise

So close, yet so far.

The Minnesota volleyball team came just a game away from earning a trip to the Final Four, but instead found itself on the first plane home after suffering a crushing defeat.

After defeating Florida (30-3) in four games on the Gators’ home court Friday in the Sweet 16, the Gophers overpowered top-ranked Nebraska (30-1) for two games before falling to the Huskers in five in the Elite Eight.

“The worst thing about this sport is how suddenly it ends,” junior middle blocker Jessy Jones said. “I know a lot of people don’t prepare to lose, and I definitely don’t, so to me it’s even a bigger shock.”

And with the loss came the end of four seniors’ careers as outside hitters Kelly Bowman and Meghan Cumpston, middle blocker Meredith Nelson and libero Malama Peniata fell just shy of earning Minnesota’s third trip to the Final Four in four years.

“We’re a little disappointed just because of the fact that we were so close,” Nelson said. “We had those first two games and we were very close to winning the match and just to come that close and not succeed, it hurts.”

The start of the weekend hinted at a bright future for Minnesota, as the Gophers (25-8) disposed of Florida in fairly quick fashion, winning 30-23, 25-30, 30-21, 30-26.

The loss for the Gators marked their first loss in 35 home matches and extended the Minnesota’s win streak in regional matches to five, dating back to 2003.

Nelson led the Gophers with 16 kills, four blocks and a .417 hit percentage, while Cumpston contributed 18 digs and five of Minnesota’s 13 service aces.

The Gophers set the tone early, finishing game one on an 8-0 run. They took full advantage of a strong passing game and out-served Florida as well, earning the win despite losing the second game.

“Florida is a really tough place to win,” coach Mike Hebert said. “We played so convincingly that it was one of the most gratifying wins in my career.”

Heading into the regional final, the heavily favored Nebraska squad was in for a surprise.

Minnesota came out strong, out-playing the Huskers throughout the first two games of the match.

The Gophers continued to show off their passing abilities, and overwhelmed the Huskers with solid blocking.

“We weren’t really that concerned about the middle of the net, because Nebraska like d setting to the outside,” Jones said. “We were able to get to the ball and challenge their shots and it really helped us to be successful.”

Nebraska never led by more than two points in the first two games and Minnesota led by as many as eight late in each game, pulling out a pair of wins 30-25, 30-24.

Bowman recorded five kills in the first two games, while sophomore outside hitter Kyla Roehrig came through with eight of her team-high 15 kills.

The Gophers’ 2-0 lead was the first time Nebraska trailed by two games this season.

The Huskers didn’t seem to enjoy the unfamiliar territory. Nebraska pulled ahead 16-10 in the third game and expanded the lead with a well-balanced attack to win 30-20.

The Huskers jumped out to a 12-3 lead in the fourth game, but the Gophers fought back to pull within two at 14-12.

Nebraska continued to find ways around Minnesota’s block and eventually broke away from the Gophers for a 30-25 win, forcing the deciding fifth game.

The Huskers scored the first five points of the game and jumped out to an 11-4 lead. Minnesota had no answer to Nebraska’s .522 hit percentage in game five and saw its season end with the 15-9 defeat.

“I think after the first two games, Nebraska felt the pressure to come out and play better,” Nelson said. “I think we surprised them with our play early, but they really came at us in the third game and we just came up short in the end.”

Jones racked up 14 kills and 10 blocks in the loss, while Peniata led the team defensively with 23 digs.

“Obviously we would have liked to go a little bit further,” Nelson said. “But that wasn’t possible, and the team should be proud of all the success it had throughout the year.”

All-Tournament honors

Roehrig recorded 28 kills and seven blocks over the weekend, while Nelson added 31 kills and eight blocks to receive Regional All-Tournament honors.

Nelson’s eight blocks pushed her career total to 536, tying the school record.