Minnesota drops first match of season

The Gophers beat Louisville in straight sets but lost to No. 19 Kentucky, its first ranked opponent of the year, in five sets.

Minnesota senior outside hitter Ashley Wittman spikes the ball against Duke on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013, at the Sports Pavilion.

Bridget Bennett

Minnesota senior outside hitter Ashley Wittman spikes the ball against Duke on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013, at the Sports Pavilion.

Megan Ryan

The Gophers volleyball team had been riding high on a perfect season — eight victories, all in straight sets.

But up against its first ranked opponent of the season, the team lost its bearings.

No. 4 Minnesota dropped a five-set battle Saturday to No. 19 Kentucky after beating Louisville in straight sets Friday at the Bluegrass Battle in Lexington, Ky.

While the Gophers had triumphed the night before, Kentucky was fresh off a straight-set loss to an unranked Pepperdine team.

Gophers head coach Hugh McCutcheon said that unexpected loss fueled Kentucky.

“They struggled the night before, and they’re a good team,” he said. “So they were going to bounce back.”

Minnesota struggled with unforced errors all match, ending with a team hitting percentage of just .174 compared to Kentucky’s .249.

Senior outside hitter Ashley Wittman led the team with 17 kills and a .304 hitting percentage in the match. The captain said nerves brought on the attacking mistakes.

“Obviously with the teams that we’ve played before, it’s been a pretty easy walk for us,” Wittman said. “And getting out there and battling a team that was actually ready to battle and who wanted to battle, I think that took us by a little bit of surprise.”

Kentucky had a not-so-secret weapon in the form of outside hitter Whitney Billings. The 6-foot-2-inch senior led the match with 25 kills and a .467 hitting percentage. She also managed 12 digs and five blocks defensively.

Wittman said the Gophers had studied up on Billings before the match but failed to execute when it came to stopping her.

Sophomore libero Lindsey Lawmaster said the Gophers’ defense struggled with reading Kentucky’s hitters and adjusting their blocking assignments and off-block positions.

And having a talented and versatile hitter on the opposite end made Minnesota’s job even harder.

“I think one of our biggest problems was being able to shut [Billings] down early,” Lawmaster said. “She’s a key player for Kentucky, and if we could have shut her down early in the game, I think we could have been better off and had more energy. But when she’s on, she’s on.”

The Gophers have just one nonconference tournament left next weekend before entering Big Ten play. McCutcheon said this loss affords his team the opportunity to learn before the matches really start to count.

“Up until now, we’ve been undefeated, and we’ve played well at times,” McCutcheon said, “but it was important for us to get into trouble … and see how we respond.”