Minn. hosts NDSU in NCAA first round

The Bison have won 10 straight matches.

Charlie Armitz

Carrying momentum into the NCAA tournament is huge âÄî a fact to which the Gophers volleyball team can attest.

Minnesota is just two years removed from its 2009 Final Four run when it won three consecutive matches to end the regular season and then four matches to start the tournament.

As this yearâÄôs Gophers (18-11) ride their own three-match winning streak into the Big Dance, interim head coach Laura Bush said she sees similarities to the 2009 Final Four squad.

âÄúI know the team is very aware of what it takes to make it to the very end,âÄù Bush said. âÄúEveryoneâÄôs invested, and that was a big part of the 2009 season âÄî that everyone was invested to the very end.âÄù

Minnesota, the No. 13 seed in the 64-team tournament, will host the first four rounds at the Sports Pavilion, starting with FridayâÄôs first-round match against NDSU.

The Summit League champion Bison (26-8) have yet to defeat a ranked team in 2011.

They came close twice, losing in five sets to then-No. 17 Iowa State on Sept. 10 and in five sets to then-No. 11 Northern Iowa on Oct. 17.

Since the loss to Northern Iowa, NDSU has reeled off 10 consecutive wins and has dropped just six sets in that time.

âÄúTheyâÄôre feeling very good about themselves,âÄù Bush said. âÄúThey played here last year, they played here in the spring âÄî theyâÄôre going to be comfortable in the Pavilion, especially with a lot of their team being from Minnesota.âÄù

In last seasonâÄôs NCAA first round, the Gophers defeated the Bison 25-21, 25-21, 25-12 at the Sports Pavilion.

âÄúThey played us tough last year in the first two sets, and then we were able to really run away with it in the third,âÄù Bush said. âÄúI expect that they have the same personality of being fighters and competitors.âÄù

Leading NDSUâÄôs charge is middle blocker Megan Lambertson, who hit .404 on the season with a 2.81 kills per set average. She had six kills in 14 attempts in last seasonâÄôs loss to Minnesota.

The Bison are also a strong serving team. Five players totaled at least 25 service aces on the season. NDSU had 183 service aces as a team âÄî 60 more than Minnesota âÄî although those aces came against significantly weaker competition.

In the second half of the season, the Gophers have also served well. Bush said continuing to serve and pass well will be the key to defeating NDSU.

Bush also said that she is looking for sophomore Ashley Wittman âÄî who was named Tuesday to the All-Big Ten First Team âÄî to raise her level of play in the postseason.

âÄúYou look at other [left-side hitters] who have been great throughout the nation in previous years âÄî this is their breaking out moment,âÄù Bush said, âÄúand sheâÄôs capable of doing that.âÄù

Wittman ranks second in the Big Ten in 2011 with a 4.52 kills per set average. She has remained a force throughout the season despite facing multiple blockers on many of her attacks.

âÄúI think weâÄôre on a pretty good path right now,âÄù Wittman said. âÄúThe past couple of matches have been pretty good.âÄù

In addition to winning and playing solid volleyball, Minnesota seems to have found an eight- to nine-player rotation on which it can rely.

Mia Tabberson has started at setter in each of the teamâÄôs last three matches, replacing freshman Kellie McNeil.

âÄúI think when Mia sets, she has a better connection with the middles,âÄù sophomore middle blocker Tori Dixon said. âÄúI think it helps our offense and develops it more.âÄù

McNeil has been useful as a serving specialist, however. So has sophomore defensive specialist Steffi Sooter, who has also taken on some passing responsibilities.

Meanwhile, outside hitters Hailey Cowles and Katherine Harms have shown improvements in the second half of the season.

Wittman, Dixon, Ariana Filho and Jessica Granquist have been solid all season long, and will likely have to carry a large load for Minnesota to repeat its trip to the Final Four.