Gophers defeat Washington in thriller, advance to Sweet 16

Minnesota trailed 2-0 in sets before Mia Tabberson came in and led a comeback.

Minnesota setter Mia Tabberson readies the ball for an attack against Washington Saturday at the Sports Pavilion. Minnesota beat Washington in five sets and will advance to the NCAA regionals.

Marisa Wojcik

Minnesota setter Mia Tabberson readies the ball for an attack against Washington Saturday at the Sports Pavilion. Minnesota beat Washington in five sets and will advance to the NCAA regionals.

by Charlie Armitz

The mood was âÄúdeathly quietâÄù in the locker room during the intermission of SaturdayâÄôs match at the Sports Pavilion, said Gophers interim head volleyball coach Laura Bush.

It didnâÄôt stay that way for long.

Minnesota (20-11) rallied from two sets down to defeat Washington in the second round of the NCAA tournament to advance to its third consecutive Sweet 16.

Trailing 2-0, the Gophers made a setter change at the break, replacing freshman Kellie McNeil with junior Mia Tabberson. With Tabberson leading the way, Minnesota seized momentum that it never relinquished it in its 18-25, 20-25, 25-17, 25-21, 15-11 win.

Junior Katherine Harms had career-highs in kills (29) and digs (24), Tabberson had 45 assists and sophomore Ashley Wittman added 23 kills as Minnesota won its fifth consecutive match.

âÄúYou could see on everybodyâÄôs faces that we werenâÄôt going to let each other down,âÄù Harms said of the teamâÄôs comeback. âÄúEverybody just decided, âÄòweâÄôre going to win this, weâÄôre going to make sure we come back.âÄôâÄù

The Gophers hit .105 for the first two sets with McNeil setting. They hit .369 with Tabberson setting âÄî including .486 in the third set and .407 in the fifth set.

âÄúTabberson came in and she changed the rhythm of the whole match,âÄù WashingtonâÄôs head coach Jim McLaughlin said.

Known for setting MinnesotaâÄôs middle blockers, Tabberson followed a different game plan out of the intermission, setting the teamâÄôs outside hitters to counter WashingtonâÄôs unusual blocking scheme.

âÄúOur middles have put up some really great numbers this whole season, so we knew coming in [Washington] would have to defend them,âÄù Tabberson said. âÄúOur middles drove as hard as they could every single time and it held the block. It opened up Ashley and Hailey [Cowles] and Katherine, and they scored all night long.âÄù

McNeil set the outsides too, but missed the target with many of her sets and struggled to get any hitter other than Harms going.

It was McNeilâÄôs first start since a 3-1 loss to Nebraska on Nov. 16. It was also her first NCAA tournament match, as Bush had elected to start Tabberson in FridayâÄôs first-round sweep of North Dakota State.

Tabberson had led the Gophers to win 12 consecutive sets heading into SaturdayâÄôs match.

Yet Bush elected to start McNeil âÄî a decision she said didnâÄôt come easily.

âÄúWe thought weâÄôd put the more athletic setter in, the one we thought could slow down [WashingtonâÄôs] outsides,âÄù Bush said. âÄúBut it didnâÄôt matter âÄî they were in system in those first two sets and we werenâÄôt driving our serve. It didnâÄôt matter who was going to be out there as far as the setter who could block the best.âÄù

In her previous starts, McNeil had given the Gophers a strong blocking presence while using her athleticism to turn poor passes into scoring opportunities for the teamâÄôs outside hitters.

Not this time.

With McNeil setting the first two sets, Wittman âÄî the teamâÄôs primary left-side hitter âÄî had five kills and six attack errors. With Tabberson at the helm, she found her stride, totaling 18 kills with just four errors.

Cowles âÄî the teamâÄôs second left-side hitter âÄî hit negative-.182 with McNeil setting and .474 with Tabberson setting. She had a kill on each of MinnesotaâÄôs set points in the last three sets.

âÄúLooking at it now, Mia really competed well,âÄù Bush said. âÄúI knew she would. I didnâÄôt know how she was going to handle mentally being out for the first two sets.

âÄúShe was, in my mind, a really big hero for us in this match.âÄù

Wittman had six kills in a fifth set in which Minnesota scored 14 of its 15 points on kills.

âÄúI felt like I had it when the fifth set started,âÄù Wittman said. âÄúOur team was fired up. We were ready to go. We donâÄôt come back from two sets down [and] lose that.âÄù

Wittman struggled to serve and pass early in the match; as a result, Bush replaced her in the back row with defensive specialist Steffi Sooter.

Sooter solidified the GophersâÄô serve-receive line, and also helped Wittman become more of a force on offense.

âÄúShe helped me get through the front row,âÄù Wittman said. âÄúShe took a little bit of the pressure off me, which was awesome.âÄù

Wittman had played in the front and back row all season, but on Saturday it was Harms who took on that role after the intermission.

Harms had 20 digs in the last three sets while racking up numerous kills out of the back row. Minnesota out-dug Washington 57-36 after the intermission and 95-74 overall.

The Gophers will host fourth-seeded Iowa State on Dec. 9 at the Sports Pavilion. The winner advances to the Elite Eight, which Minnesota will also host, regardless of whether the Gophers advance.