Minnesota splits home series with top competition

Minnesota’s volleyball team appeared to have a dual personality this weekend.
Friday night the Gophers were overmatched by top-ranked Penn State. Minnesota (24-7, 14-4 Big Ten) came out flat against the Lions in the first two games, and lost the match 15-2, 15-5, 13-15, 15-7.
But things changed for the better for Minnesota.
The Gophers took to the floor against Ohio State on Saturday with the energy they lacked from the night before. Minnesota smoked the Buckeyes (15-10, 9-9) in the first two games and won the match 15-4, 15-5, 3-15, 15-9.
The Gophers found themselves in opposite situations each night. Friday they were down by two games and tried to fight back. Saturday they were up two games and had to fend off the Buckeyes’ comeback.
After getting handed a 2-0 deficit against Penn State (28-1, 18-0), the Gophers easily could have hidden underground in game three.
Sophomore Stephanie Hagen said Minnesota was over-excited in the first two games, and wasn’t able to settle down until the third.
“We were all so pumped the whole week for this game,” Hagen said. “But the first two games I think we were kind of nervous.”
Hebert didn’t blame nerves, rather the superior play of the Lions.
“Penn State was absolutely flawless in the first two games,” Hebert said. “There was nothing we could do, we tried everything.
“If they can (play better), I don’t want to be around to see it.”
Minnesota finally got things going in the third and beginning of the fourth, until Penn State put the Gophers away.
The Gophers’ attempt at a comeback gave the Lions a needed jolt — something other teams haven’t been able to give Penn State this year.
“We woke up,” Penn State coach Russ Rose said. “We had to play well (to beat them). Minnesota is a difficult team.”
Difficulty aside, Hebert said the Gophers are still a step behind the Lions.
“We know we can play for extended periods of time at (Penn State’s) level,” Hebert said. “But we just can’t put together an entire match against the No. 1 team in the country at this point.”
The Lions proved they are worthy of their top ranking with a superior blocking game. Penn State outblocked the Gophers 16 -6. But even when the Lions didn’t deflect Minnesota’s shots, they threw the rhythm of the Gophers off.
Minnesota’s attack committed 38 errors, including 14 by Nicole Branagh. The Gophers hit a dismal .076 — .200 lower than their season average of .276.
Although Minnesota wasn’t able to come back against Penn State, they were able to put the struggles against the Lions behind them, and defeat Ohio State on Saturday.
“It was a great win,” Hebert said. “We played with a great deal of control.”
Branagh and Hagen led the Gophers with 19 and 16 kills respectively, while Lindsey Berg pitched in 41 assists.
Defensively, Minnesota outblocked the Buckeyes 14-9 — with eight blocks coming in the first game.
The win against Ohio State snapped the Gophers’ two-match losing streak — Minnesota’s longest of the season. It also gave the Gophers 14 Big Ten wins, which ties the school record.
“We have a chance now to become the winningest Minnesota volleyball team in the Big Ten,” Hebert said. “That will motivate us as we head into next weekend.”

John R. Carter covers volleyball and welcomes comments at [email protected]