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Gophers march into Sweet 16 again

Minnesota survived a tense opening weekend in the NCAA tournament.
Minnesota outside hitter Ashley Wittman digs the  ball during a match against Liberty on Friday, Nov. 30, 2012, at the Sports Pavilion.
Image by Anthony Kwan
Minnesota outside hitter Ashley Wittman digs the ball during a match against Liberty on Friday, Nov. 30, 2012, at the Sports Pavilion.

The Gophers volleyball team is Sweet 16 bound for the fourth-straight year.

Minnesota swept Liberty on Friday before defeating Creighton in four sets Saturday in the opening rounds of the NCAA tournament at the Sports Pavilion.

The Gophers beat Creighton 20-25, 25-17, 25-23, 25-17 in a match that was tenser than the scores indicated.

The Gophers trailed 16-8 in the pivotal third set but made up the ground late to notch the win.

“[We were] reminding ourselves that our good is good enough,” head coach Hugh McCutcheon said. “There’s a tendency … in this event to start getting wrapped up in the consequences and dealing with expectations.”

Junior outside hitter Ashley Wittman had a match-high 17 kills as well as 12 digs, three blocks and an ace.

Creighton head coach Kirsten Bernthal Booth said Wittman was Minnesota’s X-factor and won the match for the Gophers.

Bernthal Booth said her team planned to contain senior outside hitter Katherine Harms and junior middle blocker Tori Dixon but hoped Wittman wouldn’t pick up the slack.

She did. And Harms and Dixon played well, too. Harms tallied 14 kills, seven digs, two blocks and an ace. Dixon had 11 kills, as did senior middle blocker Dana Knudsen and freshman outside hitter Daly Santana.

“They just hit at a higher velocity than we typically see,” Bernthal Booth said of Minnesota’s hitters. “They really have whips for arms.”

Dixon broke the 1,000 career kills mark, joining Wittman and Harms, who did so earlier this season.

Bernthal Booth said her team knew Minnesota was good at killing the ball and siding out quickly. Creighton countered with setter Megan Bober, who attacked the ball on the second hit, a tactic the Gophers have struggled against all season. Bober’s 11 kills tied for the most on her team.

Wittman said another area of concern for the Gophers was on-court interaction. Minnesota often miscommunicated about which player would hit or dig the ball, which cost it several points.

“When you have six people running around the court, it can get a little crazy,” Knudsen said.

McCutcheon said after beating Liberty that his team’s defensive transitions were weak. But he said the Gophers were cleaner in the middle-back of the court, stayed deeper and handled off-speed kills better against the Bluejays.

He also said the Gophers took a while to get into their rhythm Saturday. That wasn’t the case Friday, when Minnesota jumped on the Big South champion in the first two sets before struggling in the third.

Minnesota beat Liberty 25-21, 25-10, 34-32.

“I think the first and the third sets are more representative of how Liberty can perform,” McCutcheon said Friday. “I’d say the second set was more of an anomaly than it was the norm.”

The two teams’ block and hitting percentage emphasized the back-and-forth match. Liberty outblocked Minnesota 3-0 in the first set, but Minnesota held a 6-0 advantage in the second.

“I think we just started to see some things that maybe we didn’t in the first set,” Dixon said Friday. “I know we made a few adjustments on their outside [hitters].”

The Flames had eight kills and eight errors in the second set. The Gophers struggled similarly in the third set with a .185 hitting percentage.

McCutcheon said his teams’ hitting errors didn’t concern him.

“I think Liberty performed better at the net,” he said Friday. “Our athletes were missing by inches. It’s not like they were flailing into the back wall.”

Harms had 12 kills, tying for a match-high. She also had 12 digs, three aces and four blocks.

Wittman had 11 kills and 10 digs, while Santana had 10 kills and a match-high 13 digs. Dixon recorded 10 kills and five blocks.

Wittman said Friday that the Gophers’ blockers made it easy to get multiple hitters involved.

“Our middle [blockers] did good pulling the [Liberty] blocks with them,” Wittman said. “That opened a lot of seams for the outside [hitters] and Katherine.”

Harms’ ace ended the tight third set and match, but she said the Gophers didn’t struggle to finish the Flames off.

“We all just kind of kept our heads and remained calm,” Harms said Friday.

The Gophers will face Purdue on Friday in West Lafayette, Ind., in the Sweet 16. If they beat the Boilermakers, they will face either Penn State or Kentucky in the Elite Eight on Saturday.

While McCutcheon is pleased with his team’s and players’ performance in the tournament, he can never be content.

“It’s our job to always want more,” he said. “But I’m pretty happy with what we’ve got.”

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