The Final Four is in their clutches

Minnesota is headed back to the Final Four after a pair of dominant fifth games.

by Kent Erdahl

Before the swarm of hugs and smiles, before the two capacity crowds, before the broken records and before the competition even arrived, Minnesota volleyball coach Dr. Mike Hebert prescribed exactly what the Gophers needed to return to the Final Four.

On Tuesday, Hebert said Minnesota would definitely benefit from having a home crowd to cheer it on. But, noting the competition, he said his team had to think about playing its best in the clutch instead of expecting to dominate.

“With the four teams in this regional, two three-game wins are highly unlikely and even improbable,” Hebert said then.

Two matches, 10 games and 282 points later, the Gophers punched their tickets for Long Beach, Calif., and their second consecutive Final Four, thanks to their ability to finish in the fifth game.

It wasn’t easy. Minnesota was on the receiving end of two record-setting performances over the weekend – an NCAA-record-long 48-46 loss to Georgia Tech in the fourth game Friday and a career-high 44-kill effort by Ohio State’s Big Ten player of the year Stacey Gordon on Saturday.

But Minnesota reserved its dominance for when the matches entered the decisive game.

The Gophers won game five by six points Friday and seven points Saturday. Only one other game was won by a greater margin of victory – impressive considering fifth games go to 15 instead of 30.

“We don’t like to play fifth games if we don’t have to,” senior setter Lindsey Taatjes said. “But if we have to play a fifth game, we go in with confidence. We know fifth games are ours.”

Playing five-game matches doesn’t come without its ups and downs.

Against Georgia Tech, Minnesota relied on the play of Taatjes, middle blocker Meredith Nelson and outside hitter Erin Martin to take a two-games-to-one lead.

But with a 28-23 lead in the fourth game, the Gophers witnessed the tenacity of a Yellow Jackets team that finished the regular season undefeated in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

They erased Minnesota’s lead on the next five points, and, despite an astounding 12 match points, Minnesota fell 48-46.

“It was one for the ages,” Hebert said. “I thought we had the match wrapped up. There wasn’t much we had to do to finish that game, and they just showed tremendous resolve.”

But for as much resolve as Georgia Tech showed in the fourth game, Minnesota displayed more in the fifth. The Gophers disposed of the Yellow Jackets 15-9, on the errorless, seven-kill combined performance of Nelson and Martin.

Minnesota’s win put it in the regional final against second-seeded Ohio State and NCAA player-of-the-year favorite Stacey Gordon.

After leading her team to its own five-game victory over Tennessee on Friday, Gordon became the focus of Minnesota’s defensive effort Saturday.

But even after facing her twice already this season, Minnesota had few answers for Gordon. She recorded 30 kills in the first three games and finished with a career-high 44.

“I’ve got two words for you: Stacey Gordon,” Hebert said after the match. “Has there ever been a better player to play the game of college volleyball? She is unbelievable.

“Forty-four kills – oh yeah, we really shut her down.”

They might not have shut Gordon down, but the Gophers had some inspiring performances of their own.

Defensive specialist Marci Peniata served as the unlikely hero in game two when she downed the game-winning kill, and Hebert called freshman Jessy Jones a “game-changing insertion” in the fourth and fifth games because she slowed up Gordon just enough.

There was also a triple-double from Taatjes, who garnered the regional most-valuable-player award for posting a career-high kills total with 18 and leading the team with a .552 hitting percentage.

Down two games to one going into the fourth game, Taatjes led the team back to force a game five, and Minnesota never looked back.

Martin and fellow outside hitter Trisha Bratford fed off the noise of the 3,734 in attendance and combined for seven kills and a .538 hitting percentage in the final game.

Martin finished off the Buckeyes with a booming kill, and the celebration began with a tangle of bodies on the court and ended with a victory lap and standing ovation.

“I don’t think I was expecting another five-game match tonight, but it makes it so sweet,” Martin said. “To be able to go out there in game five and look in your teammates’ eyes and know that they’re as confident as you is pretty amazing.”

After the win, Minnesota improved to 7-2 in five-game contests this season. One of those two losses came to Southern California at the beginning of the season.

But the Gophers will have a chance to redeem that loss when they face the Trojans in the first round of the Final Four on Thursday.