Gophers open NCAA tourney on a roll

Minnesota will face Big South champion Liberty on Friday at the Sports Pavilion in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

Minnesota middle blocker Tori Dixon spikes through Purdues block during a match Oct. 20 at the Sports Pavilion.

Image by Bridget Bennett

Minnesota middle blocker Tori Dixon spikes through Purdue’s block during a match Oct. 20 at the Sports Pavilion.

by Megan Ryan

The Gophers volleyball team will start its NCAA tournament journey Friday after finishing tied for second in the Big Ten.

Minnesota, the No. 8 seed overall, faces Big South champion Liberty on Friday at the Sports Pavilion in the first round.

The Gophers have a 24-7 overall record, while Liberty is 25-7.

Minnesota head coach Hugh McCutcheon admitted after Sunday’s NCAA tournament selection that he knew nothing about Liberty. But he said his team is prepared for the next stage of the season.

“I think our best volleyball is yet to come,” McCutcheon said.

Minnesota had lost three of four matches before a victory against Nebraska started a streak of four-straight wins to end the Big Ten season. The Gophers swept their last three conference opponents after beating Nebraska in five sets.

Junior middle blocker Tori Dixon said the Gophers are feeling the momentum.

“We’re peaking at the right time,” Dixon said.

Dixon, along with senior outside hitter Katherine Harms, earned All-Big Ten honors earlier this week. Junior outside hitter Ashley Wittman was an honorable mention, while freshman outside hitter Daly Santana made the All-Freshman team.

Dixon said when all her teammates are in sync, Minnesota could be unstoppable.

“When we’re playing well, when we’re playing in our system and we don’t look past the tasks at hand, I think we play just as well, if not better than anyone in the country,” Dixon said. “So I think we really do have a good shot of going all the way.”

McCutcheon said the margin for error will become thinner the further the Gophers advance in the tournament, but he is looking forward to playing more familiar teams in the later stages.

“I believe in this group. I think we can go far,” McCutcheon said. “It doesn’t mean we’ll win.”

If the Gophers win their first three rounds, they’ll likely face No. 1 seed Penn State in the Elite Eight.

McCutcheon said Minnesota’s coaching staff has already looked into the team’s potential second-round opponents, Creighton and Marquette.

Creighton, which is ranked No. 21, won its first Missouri Valley Conference tournament this season and is 28-3 overall. Marquette placed second in the Big East Conference and has a 27-6 overall record.

Unfamiliar teams won’t be the only new element of the NCAA tournament for the Gophers. Between their freshmen and transfers, many Gophers players will be new to the tournament atmosphere.

“We’ve been dealing with a lot of firsts along the way,” McCutcheon said. “To give [the tournament] any special significance I think is creating the potential for some unnecessary angst.”

Harms said the team has a good balance of excitement and focus at the moment. But McCutcheon said his team still recognizes that a loss in the NCAA tournament ends its season.

“We also have to understand that it is a different phase of the season,” McCutcheon said. “There is some finality to our results.”