As Gophers battle, wins keep coming

Minnesota fought off resilient Purdue to win in four sets Saturday.

Outside hitter Ashley Wittman spikes the ball against Purdue on Saturday night at the Sports Pavilion.

Bridget Bennett

Outside hitter Ashley Wittman spikes the ball against Purdue on Saturday night at the Sports Pavilion.

Charlie Armitz

Minnesota’s volleyball team is quietly making a name for itself in 2012.

The 10th-ranked Gophers haven’t played their best volleyball against top opponents — or against any opponent lately — but they’ve been winning as often as the nation’s elite teams.

Minnesota added another quality win to its résumé Saturday, defeating No. 17 Purdue in four sets at the Sports Pavilion to improve to 8-2 in the Big Ten.

The Gophers won 12 of the last 14 points to produce a comfortable score line — 25-21, 25-18, 16-25, 25-17. But the Boilermakers outplayed and outscored the Gophers for most of the third and fourth sets with their strong blocking.

To Minnesota head coach Hugh McCutcheon, the Boilermakers’ comeback was a test. And the Gophers aced it.

“From my perspective, the best thing that happened was that we could get beat up a little bit, dust ourselves off and come back and still get in there and battle,” McCutcheon said. “I was very proud of our team in the way we performed tonight.”

Minnesota made 25 attack errors, its most in a Big Ten match this season. It also had 10 service errors and five aces.

But Tori Dixon had three of those aces during a 5-0 run that gave the Gophers an 18-15 lead in the fourth set. McCutcheon said the team entered the fourth set with a better mindset after it had lost seven straight points to end the third.

The Boilermakers rallied throughout the night — in the first set, they turned a seven-point deficit into an 18-18 tie. The Gophers responded, scoring seven of the set’s last 10 points.

“As we go over the course of the season, I think the ability to manage the moment of competition is improving,” McCutcheon said.

Minnesota still isn’t as efficient on the court as top teams like Penn State and Nebraska. But it showed signs of sharper, smarter play Saturday. The Gophers made aggressive serves and crisp passes, extended rallies with scrappy defense and distributed sets evenly on offense.

Four different Minnesota hitters had at least 10 kills, and all of them hit .190 or better. Junior setter Alexandra Palmer wasn’t always accurate, but she kept all of her hitters involved and made good decisions.

In contrast, Purdue’s Ariel Turner had about three times as many kills (22) and attacks (61) as any of her teammates.

“We have five, six people who can put the ball down at any time off of any set,” said junior outside hitter Ashley Wittman, who had 11 kills. “That’s what we need to be a top team in the Big Ten.”

And it’s the opposite of what Minnesota had a year ago, when it held a 5-5 record at the Big Ten’s halfway point. Then, the team lived and died by Wittman, who regularly took twice as many swings as her teammates. Now, when Wittman has a tough hitting night, she can let another hitter take the lead and focus on other areas of her game.

While Wittman had a solid all-around match Saturday, her teammates excelled in different ways. Dixon had three aces and no service errors, player of the year candidate Katherine Harms had 15 kills and freshman Daly Santana had a career-high 18 digs.

Santana, who added nine kills and two aces, said it helps to know all of her fellow hitters are capable.

“You can just trust every teammate because you know they’re going to hit the ball,” Santana said. “They’re going to go for it.”

Minnesota will need more than a balanced offense to beat better teams. Defense remains a major weakness, and the Gophers’ passing game has been inconsistent.

But it’s getting better, and to McCutcheon, improvement is a recipe for more wins.

“As we continue to improve, I think [the players] continue to believe that they can always find a way to win,” McCutcheon said. “They believe in each other, and they believe in the team, and they believe in the systems that we’re trying to implement.

“And that goes a long way.”