Gophers escape Creighton, advance to Sweet Sixteen

Minnesota evaded two match points en route to a thrilling five-set victory.

Outside hitter Alexis Hart pushes the ball over the net during the game against the Fairfield Stags in the first round of the NCAA tournament at the Maturi Pavilion on Friday, Dec. 6.

Image by Sydni Rose

Outside hitter Alexis Hart pushes the ball over the net during the game against the Fairfield Stags in the first round of the NCAA tournament at the Maturi Pavilion on Friday, Dec. 6.

by Nolan O'Hara

The Gophers’ volleyball team is advancing to the Sweet Sixteen for the fifth consecutive season after a nail-biting win over Creighton on Saturday at Maturi Pavilion. 

The Gophers squeaked past the Bluejays in five sets: 25-13, 19-25, 15-25, 26-24 and 15-10. After falling behind 8-5 early in the first, middle blocker Regan Pittman helped the Gophers regain their footing, contributing a kill and an ace during a 4-0 Minnesota run, giving them a 9-8 advantage. From there, momentum favored the Gophers. Outside hitter Alexis Hart and opposite hitter Stephanie Samedy contributed four kills each on the way to Minnesota’s first set route. 

After breezing through the first set, the Gophers didn’t have the same luck in the second. Creighton went on a 4-0 run early that gave them a 12-9 lead, one that Minnesota couldn’t overcome. The Gophers came within two late, as outside hitter Adanna Rollins dropped back-to-back kills, making it 21-19. Creighton answered with a 4-0 run, not allowing another Minnesota point on their way to a second set victory. After hitting .281 in the first, the Gophers were limited to a .025 hit percentage in the second. 

Reeling after dropping the second, the Gophers’ struggles continued in the third. Creighton tallied the first four points of the set, before outside hitter Airi Miyabe finally found an answer for Minnesota. That answer, however, was short lived. Creighton continued to force the Gophers out-of-system and kept its foot on the gas, opening up a 16-9 lead. From there, the Bluejays cruised through the remainder of the set, stifling the Gophers’ offense and taking advantage of what they could on defense, hitting .270, their highest clip of the night. 

Minnesota’s post-season fate relied on the outcome of the fourth set. A team with national championship aspirations was on the verge of a stunning upset on their home floor, falling behind late in the set. Creighton reached set point, leading 24-22, and hopes looked dim for the Gophers. Middle blocker Taylor Morgan and Samedy stopped a Creighton swing to add Minnesota’s 23rd point, but Creighton was still left with another chance to leave Minneapolis with a four-set upset. 

“Sometimes if you can say it out loud it kind of registers in your head,” Morgan said. “And I was like, ‘We still got this, we [are] still in it.’ And I think that helped.” 

Creighton missed on its following swing, tying the set at 24 and libero CC McGraw served the ace of the season, giving the Gophers a 25-24 lead and set point. On the ensuing possession, Samedy and Pittman stuffed Creighton’s attempt, forcing a fifth set. 

“Certainly really proud of [McGraw] at the end of that fourth set to hit some really good serves,” said head coach Hugh McCutcheon. “And even getting an ace there towards the end.” 

A delay of game cost Creighton the first point of the fifth, and the Gophers were able to take advantage. Tied at eight, Minnesota took a narrow 9-8 lead after Morgan and Miyabe stopped another Creighton attempt. Morgan continued to be a force at the net for the Gophers. She added two more blocks in the fifth, giving her nine total, a match-high. Standing solo, Pittman sent back Creighton’s final attempt, saving the Gophers from a second round upset.

“I remember telling them, ‘We did this all the time. We had different lineups, we’ve been down and came back up, this is nothing new to us,'” Morgan said. 

The Gophers are advancing to the Sweet Sixteen, and their opponent, No. 10 Florida, is already waiting. The match between Minnesota and Florida will be a rematch of an early season contest, one the Gophers took 3-0. As the Gophers turn their focus towards that rematch, McCutcheon believes his team only improved through the five set battle against Creighton. 

“Here we are at the end of the season. The discipline required to keep so many of those thoughts at bay about the possible outcome, I thought that was really one of the strengths for our athletes in terms of evolving,” McCutcheon said. “We didn’t somehow let what might happen get in the way of what we had to do to get the outcome that we wanted.”