On match point of what will be remembered as Nicole Branagh’s last trip to the court at the Sports Pavilion, the Gophers volleyball player had a familiar look on her face.
As the all-time kills leader in Minnesota and Big Ten history, the senior outside hitter has worn a smile for four years.
After Saturday’s win over Arizona State in the second round of the NCAA tournament, her expression was no different.
But behind her smile was what she was trying to hide, or perhaps avoid — playing her final home match as a member of the Gophers.
“I didn’t really think about it,” Branagh said afterwards. “But it’s my last time playing here in front of all these people, and the support has been incredible this year, and in past years.”
With all the personal records and awards Branagh has garnered over the past four seasons, she will go down as arguably the greatest player in Gophers history.
From her second team all-American honor last season, to her co-Big Ten player of the year award this year, Branagh has filled shelves with hardware.
Saturday night, in helping her team return to the sweet 16 for the second consecutive year, she had her going out party.
Branagh’s 31 kills were a match high and tied her own school record for kills in an NCAA tournament match, which she set last season against USC.
Against Arizona State, Branagh’s arm, like it has so many times in the past, looked like a rocket-launcher firing heavy artillery all over the court.
This time around, it was the Sun Devils who were the victims of her attack.
One time, Branagh knocked a kill off of an Arizona State player, and the ball ricocheted about 40 feet backwards, hitting the windows of the Sports Pavilion club room.
“We never really slowed them down offensively,” Sun Devils coach Patti Snyder-Park said.
The “them” Synder-Park was referring to ultimately referred to directed towards Branagh.
From the opening serve, Branagh had her arm raring to go, and Minnesota coach Mike Hebert said it just got faster as the match went on.
“Nicole started a little timidly,” Hebert said. “But about halfway through the match her stroke was on fire.”
Branagh agreed, although her stats after the opening game showed 10 kills, the most she had in any of the four games.
“I started off decelerated on the approach, and let the ball fall too short,” Branagh said. “But then Mike made some suggestions and I adjusted to them.”
As Branagh sat in the media interview room minutes after the match, she wore the same smile she had while walking off the court for the final time.
But rather than reflect upon a great career, Branagh spoke only of the Gophers and the success they have had as a team.
She also touched on, of course, the success Minnesota hopes to continue as the Gophers attempt to reach the first final four in school history.
“I’m sad,” she said of playing her final match at the Sports Pavilion. “But I’m excited to be going further in the tournament.”
John R. Carter welcomes comments at [email protected]