Two wins send spikers to California for Sweet 16

Ben Goessling

When Minnesota’s volleyball team blew a 2-0 lead and lost to Northern Iowa in the second round of last year’s NCAA tournament, Lindsey Vander Well was just an untested freshman watching from the sidelines as All-Big Ten setter Lindsey Berg tried and failed to keep her team from spiraling out of control.

One year later, Minnesota’s second round match with No. 17 Georgia Tech at the Sports Pavilion on Friday brought Vander Well to an eerily similar crossroads. Minnesota took a 2-0 lead on the Yellow Jackets, only to drop the third game and fall perilously close to a fifth game as Georgia Tech took a 26-23 lead in game four.

But Vander Well didn’t blink for a second.

“I never really thought about Northern Iowa,” she said coolly. “We just had to settle down.”

The sophomore captain’s calm demeanor and 20 assists in the fourth game carried Minnesota to a 3-1 victory. Every time the match got close, there was Vander Well, setting up a key assist, redirecting a bad pass over the net, stuffing a Yellow Jackets hitter or digging a ball that would have otherwise sent the Gophers to the brink again.

Gophers coach Mike Hebert has said all year his team “just seems to play the big points better” than its opponents. Hebert has never been more correct than on Friday night, as Minnesota (33-6) battled past a feisty Georgia Tech (32-5) team to secure its third trip to the Sweet Sixteen in four years.

The Gophers will travel to Palo Alto, Calif., to play No. 16 Arizona on Thursday in the Pacific Regional semifinals.

“Anybody who watched knows the match could have gone either way,” Hebert said. “That was a tremendous effort by Georgia Tech. It was just a little bit better effort by us.”

Vander Well contributed 66 assists, nine digs and three blocks. Sophomore Trisha Bratford posted 26 kills – the second-highest NCAA tournament total in school history behind Nicole Branagh’s 31 in 2000 – to fuel Minnesota’s victory.

Each game, the 10th-ranked Gophers win merely looked like a replay of the last, as they rose to the challenge time and again to steal a win away from Georgia Tech.

Game one

the Yellow Jackets erase a 28-25 deficit to tie the score at 28. Minnesota takes a timeout. Georgia Tech’s Jennifer Randall serves out of bounds, and a Gophers block seals the frame.

Game two

minnesota calls timeout down 29-27. Georgia Tech’s Alexandra Preiss serves out of bounds, Vander Well feeds Bratford for back-to-back kills and outside hitter Cassie Busse pounds a service ace to complete a stirring 31-29 win.

Game four

after a comeback attempt in the third game falls short, Minnesota crawls out of a 26-23 hole to tie the game at 26. This time, Georgia Tech takes a timeout and regains the lead 27-26, only to fall victim to Busse, who ties the game with her 18th kill of the match, and Bratford, who pounds the last three kills amidst an attack error, sending Minnesota to the Sweet Sixteen and the 1,960 fans in the Sports Pavilion into pandemonium.

“We’ve said all along this team never says die,” outside hitter Erin Martin said, who recorded 16 kills. “Georgia Tech’s a great team, and I didn’t think they would be that good. But we played with nothing to lose.”

If the Gophers win Thursday, they will face either Ohio State or defending national champion Stanford for a trip to the Final Four in New Orleans.

Minnesota fell to the Cardinal team in the championship match of the State Farm Classic on Aug. 24 and clearly wants a chance at revenge.

“We’d love to play Stanford again, but first things first. We have to take care of Arizona,” Bratford said, as Hebert gazed approvingly from the side of the room.