Gophers down host to win Northern Iowa tournament

Minnesota recovered from a five-set loss to Kansas by defeating No. 15 Northern Iowa in a similar match.

Charlie Armitz

After struggling in close matches most of last season, the Gophers won a couple of close ones over the weekend.

No. 6 Minnesota won the Clarion Inn-vitational on Sept. 9-10 in Cedar Falls, Iowa, rallying to defeat No. 15 Northern Iowa in five sets after splitting matches against St. Louis and Kansas.

The Gophers played three matches in two days, including two five-setters Saturday.

With the win over Northern Iowa âÄî a 22-25, 25-12, 25-14, 16-25, 15-10 comeback âÄî Minnesota improved to 5-2 on the season, and 2-2 in five-set matches.

Nine hours earlier, the Gophers had seen a similar rally fall short, losing to unranked Kansas, 25-27, 20-25, 25-17, 25-20, 12-15. The nonconference loss shouldnâÄôt significantly affect MinnesotaâÄôs ranking.

âÄúWe showed some resilience,âÄù interim head coach Laura Bush said. âÄúWe played in a very uncomfortable gym against two very good teams. It was a team effort in getting the win.âÄù

Minnesota played its first match of the tournament Friday, defeating unranked St. Louis, 25-18, 25-18, 25-17. The victory extended the GophersâÄô streak of consecutive sets won to 11.

Playing in front of a hostile crowd for the first time in 2011, the Gophers took a 2-1 sets lead over Northern Iowa after losing the first set. Minnesota dominated the second and third sets; they won 66 percent of the points and led the entire way.

In the decisive fifth set, the Gophers jumped ahead 7-5. After Northern Iowa tied the score at 7-7, Minnesota won five consecutive points, forcing the Panthers to use their only two timeouts.

In a match defined by momentum, the hometown Panthers ultimately couldnâÄôt respond and never won more than two consecutive points the rest of the way.

âÄúWe controlled our side of the net,âÄù Bush said. âÄúWe controlled the serving game and we controlled the passing game, which allowed us to stay in system.âÄù

For the tournament, Minnesota, Northern Iowa and Kansas each finished 2-1 while St. Louis went 0-3. The Gophers won the tournament because they had the highest point differential of the three 2-1 teams.

Minnesota sophomore outside hitter Ashley Wittman received the tournamentâÄôs MVP award. Wittman led the Gophers with 24 kills against Northern Iowa, a career-high 28 kills against Kansas and a tournament-best 60 kills overall.

âÄúMy teammates had my back,âÄù Wittman said. âÄúThey did their part, and that helped me do my part.âÄù

That kind of teamwork has been the Minnesota battle cry throughout 2011. Although theyâÄôre not deep, the Gophers are strong and experienced at every position.

They also have an identity âÄî something they didnâÄôt have early in 2010.

âÄúLast season by this time, we were down two seniors,âÄù Bush said. âÄúWe were a very young team. This year, we have more experience, and that goes a long way. We donâÄôt have that many question marks.âÄù

MinnesotaâÄôs youth was one culprit last season as the team struggled in close matches, especially on the road. The 2010 Gophers lost their first four five-set matches, including two road matches in which Minnesota led 2-0. 

This season has been a much different story. Senior libero Jessica Granquist credits the teamâÄôs improved play in difficult situations to its mental toughness.

âÄúEveryoneâÄôs fully focused and engaged,âÄù Granquist said. âÄúWeâÄôre looking for ways to win the next point every single time. This year weâÄôre a lot more focused.âÄù

Granquist, who led the Gophers with 67 digs in the three matches, was named to the All-Tournament team.

Sophomore middle blocker Tori Dixon, who had 38 kills and hit .419, also made the tournament team.

Minnesota wraps up nonconference play Sept. 17-18 with the Marquette Tournament in Milwaukee, Wis. The Gophers will play unranked Middle Tennessee State at 5 p.m. Saturday, and Marquette at 2:00 p.m. Sunday.